IMAGINE a planetarium-style presentation about the future of technology, followed by a tour of dozens of hands-on exhibits — whether of sandlike microparticles that flow like liquid in a beaker, pictures that appear three-dimensional or concrete that floats.
In a world of online user communities, social media, interactive blogs and other technological means for companies to elicit customer feedback, you might think that face-to-face interaction is a thing of the past. Think again.
As a company, 3M is at the forefront of a movement that appears to be gaining traction: customer innovation centers, typically located near company research facilities, that provide a forum for meeting with corporate customers and engaging them directly in the innovation process.
When many people hear the name 3M, they may think only of canary-colored Post-it notes. But the company is applying wide-ranging technical expertise to a portfolio of products including transportation systems, dental and medical devices and electronics. One of its latest is a pocket-sized LED projector that connects to cellphones, P.D.A.’s and digital cameras.
The company opened its first customer innovation center in Sumitomo, Japan, in 1997, followed by others throughout the world, including sites in Brazil, Germany, India, China and Russia. This month, it announced that it would open its 23rd center next year, in Dubai.
The idea behind the centers is to foster innovation by combining a richer understanding of customer needs with creative links among 3M technologies. “Being customer-driven doesn’t mean asking customers what they want and then giving it to them,” says Ranjay Gulati, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “It’s about building a deep awareness of how the customer uses your product.”
Professor Gulati recently completed a book, “(Re) (Organize) for Resilience,” about how to make customers the center of a business.
A typical customer day at a 3M center begins with a team from a visiting company presenting an overview of their business to a group of 3M marketing and technology experts who pepper them with open-ended questions. The goal is to understand “what our customers are trying to accomplish, not what they say they need,” says John Horn, vice president for research and development at 3M’s industrial and transportation business.
Next is a visit to the “World of Innovation” showroom. The company has more than 40 of what it calls technology platforms — core technologies in areas like optical films, reflective materials, abrasives and adhesives — that can potentially be combined and applied to meet a range of needs in different markets. By exposing customers to these platforms, 3M hopes to prompt the type of novel connections — like using dental technology to improve car parts — that drive innovative solutions. “We never show completed products,” Dr. Horn says. “Doing that would constrain people’s thinking.”