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A top Amazon Alexa exec shares the 3 steps IT departments should take to build a culture of innovation


Amazon Alexa_microwave

  • In the past, IT teams would build applications tailored to the needs of a specific business unit. 
  • Now, technologists within enterprises are trying to build applications that can be iterated upon across departments — meaning much shorter development timelines and faster innovation. 
  • Amazon has long embodied that mindset. And perhaps no part of the company personifies that more than Alexa. 
  • The voice assistant can be easily transferred into new products, which was exemplified when Amazon rolled-out an Alexa-enabled microwave in 2018. 
  • Sign up here to receive updates on all things Innovation Inc.

In 2018, Amazon rolled-out a slew of new Alexa-enabled products, including a microwave and other devices. 

Much of the public attention focused on the actual products. But perhaps even more importantly, it was a grand display of the new reality for IT teams across corporate America. 

In the past, technologists within organizations tended to work on a project for a specific department before starting over on a separate initiative for another — even if there may have been some overlap. But there's a major shift underway. Instead of bespoke applications, IT teams are now building platforms so they can be easily replicated and iterated upon across the organization. That means tech for one business unit can be easily tailored for another — often leading to much shorter development timelines. 

Part of the reason for that is the proliferation of application programming interfaces, or APIs, which are essentially building blocks that enable developers to piece together different pieces of software. McDonald's, for example, was able to easily transition its own online ordering platform to Uber Eats because it was built on APIs. 

The same is true of Alexa. That's why the company was able to quickly deploy its technology in a range of products, like the microwave. It's just one reason why Amazon is looked to by many chief information officers as the holy grail of how an IT department must function to innovate quickly and successfully. 

"There are a lot of very smart people in the world. And if we're able to give them powerful and simple tools from the beginning, that may actually be one of the most powerful things we can do to unlock innovation," Aaron Rubenson, vice president of Amazon Alexa Voice Service and Alexa Skills, told Business Insider. "It's really that philosophical shift that's critical."  

Aaron Rubenson

Rubenson shared the three steps that leaders should take in order to foster a culture of innovation within their organizations. 

Formalize disruption 

When Rubenson's team was first beginning to plot out the future of Alexa, they knew it was a radical new concept that would change how many consumers interact with products. 

But the group also knew it was more than just Amazon that would have to adjust. So they thought through how best to make sure the systems would thrive off of an open development community. 

"We knew we were going to have to throw out the traditional playbook, but also build an engine to galvanize an entire industry of developers and device makers and content providers to think differently," Rubenson said. 

So Rubenson and the team created a list of outreach opportunities that would introduce the products to the wider tech community in a way that would encourage a robust partner ecosystem — meaning other companies would eagerly look to infuse Alexa's capabilities into their own systems. 

"We were able to see partners like Sonos, and Facebook, and Bose, and Samsung, and others build successful products that were designed for voice from the beginning," he added. 

The lesson, according to Rubenson, is how important it is to plot-out a longer-term strategy for projects that encourage innovation beyond the initial roll-out. Without that foresight, Alexa may not be as ubiquitous as it is today.  

In a more traditional setting, that could be figuring out how a platform tailored to human resources could easily be adjusted to meet the needs of the legal department, then working that into the development to easily iterate on top of the finished product. 

Build to get out of the way 

For Rubenson, the goal was to build Alexa in a way that would allow Amazon's partner ecosystem to use the technology with little hand-holding from his team. 

It's different from what he called a "rigid sandbox" approach of Amazon's rivals, which he says requires the provider to do the heavy lifting when it comes to innovation. 

"We build really powerful technology, we make it accessible to our partners, and then we step back and let them innovate with the tools that we've given them," Rubenson said. 

That strategy is one that mirrors the effort underway across corporate America to empower specific business units to tap tools like artificial intelligence within their operations with little involvement from the technology department. 

It's one reason why companies like Morgan Stanley, for example, are constantly educating their employees on the applications and how to use them. 

Normalize a 'fail forward' mentality 

Innovation is a messy process and there are bound to be missteps as companies look to overhaul their own process for cultivating new ideas or concepts. 

Rubenson, for example, helped launch Amazon Underground — a platform that allowed customers to access applications for free that they would typically have to pay for — that shut-down in 2019. Even though it failed because Amazon couldn't find a way to make money off of it, Rubenson learned critical lessons, including how to build a well-balanced portfolio of content for customers and how to drive engagement. 

Amazon has a well-established culture of "fail forward" within its organizations and it's a tenet that Rubenson says is critically important. 

"Many companies talk about the importance of innovation, but then when anything goes wrong there are consequences for those that took the risks," he said. "There's no more certain way to staunch future innovation than to punish those who are willing to try something new."

While difficult to implement across the enterprise, there are some simple steps that executives can take to begin the process. 

Categorizing objectives by near-and-long-term results can help give cover to those working on projects that may take much longer to materialize. Constant oversight can also help to figure out quickly whether an initiative is producing the desired results. And a key red-flag for Rubenson is when updates indicate everything is "all roses and nothing is wrong."

"No team is perfect," he said. "By instilling that as one of our leadership principles, reinforcing  in our weekly and monthly mechanisms, it teaches everybody that this is in fact our culture, that there aren't consequences for being vulnerable." 

SEE ALSO: The CEO of $535 million AI startup Standard explains how its new deal to power cashierless checkout at Circle K convenience stores shows how it's possible for retailers to take on Amazon Go

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