It happens here: Consumer-centric Innovation in Charlotte and beyond

If innovation were steak… (Part 1) by Frank Blair

Over the summer, I met Frank Blair, the Director of Research, Innovation, and Strategy at the Public Library of Charlotte Mecklenberg County (PLCMC.)   His background in Linguistics has taken him to many parts of the world, and he’s weaved his experience in IT and Innovation to make the city’s libraries a critical partner in our community.  Frank’s an extremely engaging personality, and this week, he’s a guest on this blog to share a lesson of innovation in 3 parts: Rare, Medium, and Well-done.  Enjoy!

If innovation were steak… (Part 1) – by Frank Blair


flickr photo: nathanaelb

If innovation were a steak you were ordering at Longhorn’s or Morton’s, how would you place your order?  Just like steak, innovation can be well-done, medium or rare.


This steak has been thoroughly cooked.  Some believe it is the hardest kind of steak to cook, and that it is the steak for people who don’t like steak.  If you are in an environment that doesn’t care for (or is hostile to) innovative practices, techniques and products, then this is for you!  Of course there are people who just like their steak well-done for health reasons, or even just for the taste (go figure).

If you are interested in this grade of innovation, look for a practice, technique or product that is common in your industry or profession, but just hasn’t been implemented in your workspace yet.  There will likely be several vendors to select the product or service from, or perhaps alternative procedures or manuals to choose from.  The innovative thought comes from seeing the possibility of a practice, technique or product in another area or profession and realizing the possibilities inherent in customizing it for your particular niche.

So, for example, at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, an example of “well-done” innovation would the recent use of on-line whiteboard and chat technology to provide homework assistance to school-age students.  Nothing is new about providing access to resources for homework in our libraries…we’ve been doing it for over a hundred years.  But our environment has changed, and many of our customers, especially students, want to use our resources on-line from home.  We partnered with to provide free, online live homework help from 2PM until 10PM on school nights.  If you don’t have a computer or Internet access at home, you can use a computer at the library for the same purpose.  An existing service partnered with an existing library to create an innovative service for our county.  You can learn more about the service from this WBT News story.

Want more well-done innovation?  Try benchmarking your products or practices against others providing a similar service or product.  At the library, we do this when we compare ourselves to other libraries.

How do you like your steak?  Check back on Friday and we’ll take a look at medium.

Starting a lemonade stand out of lemons: Entrepreneurship and the Economy by Nheeda Enriquez
flickr photo credit: gabe mulley

flickr photo credit: gabe mulley

I’ve written about how recessions are great catalysts innovation and entrepreneurship, since tough constraints force new ways of thinking about problems.  A job loss is one of the toughest constraints of all, so as a Plan B to finding new positions, many think about starting their own businesses, converting that daydream of being one’s own boss into an true option worth considering.

With the city’s financial sector and the businesses around it in turmoil, Gov. Perdue recognized that Charlotte is ripe for entrepreneurs, and she is funding programs to encourage displaced talent to stick around and try their own thing.  One is the Fast Trac New Ventures Program, a class developed by the Kauffman Foundation, delivered free through the Small Business & Technology Development Center recently graduated its first two classes targeting downsized workers.

George McAllister, SBTDC’s regional director, is no stranger to entrepreneurial thinking in this economy.  In a conversation with him, I learned how he and his team “made a village come together” to get this special program up and running quickly.  He says many candidates that have been through the course saw niches and new opportunities because of all the layoffs.  This gives them the kick in the pants they need, arming them with tools to evaluate the feasibility of their business plans (as well as lifelong skills and professional networks.)

Here’s a few more local entrepreneurship resources I’ve come across this summer:

Demystifying energy: Innovation for everyone via EPRI by Nheeda Enriquez
flickr photo credit: rbatina

flickr photo credit: rbatina

Energy is one of the “it” girls in innovation nowadays, given the full court coverage from the media and the Obama administration.  Amidst all the maelstrom sits the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI,) which is where marketing communications leader Don Kintner spends his days helping this independent, non-profit get its message out to customers from the Charlotte facility in the University area.

EPRI’s primary “customers” for its energy research are utilities and more recently, auto companies, but they don’t stop there.  They even provide answers for the utility technician, arming them with handy pocket field reference guides, such as “Visual Inspection of Polymer Insulators” and tools to help them evaluate the quality of transmission lines.

Kintner and the teams at EPRI host workshops with utilities to figure out which research projects ultimately inform the future of energy development, ensuring that the work they do is relevant and useful.  They also want to keep tabs on how the end consumer will react to changes in technology.  With all the attention and funding heading towards this sector, investment upfront to understand these issues sounds like money well spent.

Solving the right problems: CPCC’s Center for Applied Research by Nheeda Enriquez
June 30, 2009, 10:55 am
Filed under: Charlotte, community services | Tags: , , ,

Terri Manning wears many hats, but when I met her, she wore the one that reads ‘Director of the Center for Applied Research’ at CPCC.  Her team is the only one like it at a community college level, and they respond locally, researching the effectiveness of a city’s health, education, housing, or labor and workforce programs.  And in an era of scrambling accountability, communities struggle to figure out which projects are successful and which require re-evaluation.

Dr. Manning told me about a recent commission to bring a Massachusetts state college’s math faculty together to do just that: assess its effectiveness.  But in digging deeper, she realized that this was a tall order, since each teacher had a completely different syllabus and style.  So she worked with the instructors to establish a common curriculum based on common learning outcomes.  But in the process of doing that, the group recognized that the most important outcome their students needed to develop was critical reasoning skills, and outdated methods of teaching mathematics do not contribute to this goal.  So the Center is now working with educators to create a more robust model of teaching math that can be replicated across other colleges and universities.

This lesson in root cause analysis demonstrates how true innovation begins with spending the time to make sure we’re solving the right problem, and not just solving to fix the symptoms of the problem.  And clearly defining the problem makes it a whole lot easier to arrive at solutions.  Because we as humans have a tendency to want to get to answers right away, it’s a simple detail that is often overlooked.

Charlotte’s Creative Vitality= 0.75. (Yikes?) by Nheeda Enriquez

I attended a presentation today releasing the findings of a study called the Creative Vitality Index for Charlotte, put together by the Arts and Science Council and the Chamber of Commerce.  The study, conducted by a research group in Denver, concluded that there was a slight decline from 2006 to 2007 from .78 to .75.  (The baseline score is 1.0, and for comparison’s sake,  Denver is 2.8 and Portland is 2.13.  However, the authors cautioned to read those with a grain of salt.)  Silver lining: the Meck county figures in at 1.4.  Not sure if this is Richard Florida’s vision of a creative city, but I guess we can work on it.

How do you calculate a region’s relative vitality?  Here’s what they used:

  • Income of traditonally non-profit arts organizations as well as some with a record of arts activity
  • CD and bookstore sales per capita
  • Musical instrument and photography store sales per capita
  • Motion picture theater attendance
  • Art gallery and museum revenues

It will be interesting to see (1) how the metrics will change with the continuing digitization of media and (2) what the number will look like post-recession.  Read the full report here.

The best part was that event took place at the nifty new theater in the NC Music Factory.  I didn’t take any good photos because the weather stunk, but CLTblog has some good pre-opening shots here.

Rephrase the question by Nheeda Enriquez
June 12, 2009, 8:58 pm
Filed under: arts and creativity, community services | Tags:

Arts organizations are no strangers to a budget shortage, but in the last 24 hours, I’ve heard and read a lot about the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s efforts to make up the decreased 2009 funding from the city’s Arts and Science Council.  They’ve had remarkable success in just straight out asking for a specific donation during their popular Southpark Pops series.

Not only are concert-goers forking over $5 for free performances, some are offering suggestions on how to expand interest in them.  On today’s episode of Charlotte Talks, local representatives of the arts community talked about this issue, and how they’ve had to think even more innovatively than before.  Beyond traditional cost-cutting measures, one panel member mentioned a solution where he intentionally chose shows that had minimal sets and fewer cast members for this season.

flickr photo credit: hooverine

flickr photo credit: hooverine

This made me think about how sometimes rephrasing a question or challenge more specifically can help us get past the obvious.  Rather than asking “How can we save money?” you could think about it as “How can we use lighting more creatively?”  Or “How would we acknowledge the actors without using paper?”  Or “How might we double the number of ears listening to our musicians for each performance hour?”

Church in Charlotte, web 2.0-style by Nheeda Enriquez
May 28, 2009, 2:19 am
Filed under: branding, community services | Tags: ,
flickr photo courtesy of Tanpopo-Himawari

flickr photo courtesy of Tanpopo-Himawari

A few weeks ago, I found a box of orange Tic Tacs on my doorstop with a postcard inviting me to Elevation Church‘s opening service in Uptown. It struck me as unusually contemporary graphic design for a religion.  I finally got around to checking it out online today, and I was surprised at how tightly branded this organization is.

High-fidelity production is not new to progressive religions, particularly in the hometown of Charlotte’s native son, Billy Graham.  What makes Elevation stand out (and apparently successful, noted as the second-fastest growing church in the US,) is its appeal to a more Web 2.0 clientele, complete with blogs and podcasts and GenY personality.

Regardless of your religious affiliation, you have to be impressed by Elevation’s marketing savvy.  Even the pastor’s reading list seems straight out of a FastCompany issue.  If anyone has been to any of their services, I’d love to hear an unbiased review on whether or not they deliver on the identity they present online.