Taking Innovation Culture to the Next Level|Straight Talk


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A new technology center and internal competitions for seed funding reinvigorate innovation at a 120-year-old government and defense contractor. 

By Patrick Seamon, Vice President of Engineering and Operations, Harris Corporation

Most people associate innovation with commercial startups in Silicon Valley – not a government contractor. But at Harris Corporation, a 120-year-old, Florida-based defense contractor, we are working to turn that perception on its head.  Innovation has become our driving force to deliver new technologies faster and at a lower cost than ever before.

Building on Innovative Roots

Innovation is by no means a new concept at Harris.  It has been part of our DNA since the founding Harris brothers invented a new-to-the-world automated sheet-fed printing press in the 1890s. Their printing press was ten times faster than conventional presses – a feat so unbelievable that the brothers had to downplay that marketing claim just to get sales prospects to agree to a demonstration.  The ten-person startup grew rapidly over the next century and transitioned from a print-communications business into an electronic-communications and information-technology leader. 

Throughout our history, Harris has reinvented itself numerous times.  Most recently the company underwent perhaps its largest transformation – the acquisition of Exelis – which transformed our business into a top-ten defense contractor with greater scale and a much broader technology portfolio.  Most important, the acquisition allowed us to expand the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation principles on which our company was founded. Think of it as “establishing the culture” of a 120-year-old startup!

Today, our 22,000 employees provide some of the world’s most advanced communications and information technology solutions to customers in 125 countries, in areas such as defense, air-traffic management, weather, space, and electronic warfare. 

Establishing an Innovation Environment

Fostering and sustaining a culture of innovation requires establishing an overall environment that supports and encourages creativity at all levels. At Harris, that includes direct involvement from our CEO and Board of Directors – which established a committee specifically focused on research and development (R&D) investments and recognizing outstanding innovative contributions. 

We also invest heavily in our technology and in our true source of innovation: our employees. During the past five years, Harris has increased its investment in R&D to an industry-leading percentage of revenues.  This substantial investment provides the resources for our company’s 9,000 engineers to challenge industry norms and create new solutions, often from the ground up.  Many of these solutions are created without prompting from a traditional government request for proposal. That is because we try to cultivate an environment that unleashes new levels of creativity and entirely new approaches to solve our customers’ biggest challenges.   

To foster innovation beyond the company’s core priority R&D projects, we established an employee resource group for intrapreneurs and an internal venture-capital-type firm – with Harris scientists and engineers championing new ideas they feel have broad potential. Those budding intrapreneurs also have the opportunity to compete for seed funding from the company to advance their ideas.  As part of this initiative, we recently launched a Shark Tank-style competition that offers up to $50,000 to employees or innovative ideas. In its first year, more than 100 proposals were submitted from around the company, and 20 were granted seed funding. Subsequently, five of those bright ideas received additional funding and support.  We believe that these ideas will eventually yield marketable innovations.

As these projects move forward, the developers behind them are given more time to pursue their goals and more opportunities to collaborate across company locations. This helps them and their project, while also building bridges between business units that might otherwise tend to become somewhat insular.

In addition to the Shark Tank-style competitions, we also established “reverse pitches,” where business leaders can share with other groups any problems with which they need help. Attendees come back later and present ideas for how to solve those problems.

To further foster companywide brainstorming and idea sharing, we also host an internal technology exhibition called the Harris Tech Expo, where engineers and scientists showcase and discuss the breadth of innovative projects under way across the company.

The Tech Expo is held during National Engineers Week – an annual celebration when the company and employees host informative seminars, team-building events, competitive activities, and various ceremonies recognizing our engineers’ and scientists’ many contributions.  We cap off the Expo with an announcement of the company’s choice for the Harris Corporation Fellow Award, our highest recognition for engineering achievement.

Creating an Innovation Hub

At Harris, we want to provide our employees with the physical environment to help nurture the creativity and collaboration that will spark the next big ideas.   

That is why we opened the Harris Technology Center last year.  A $135 million, 464,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility, the center serves as the hub for the company’s R&D, and an incubator for engineering creativity and innovation. The facility is gold LEED certified and contains state-of-the-art conference rooms, engineering labs, and modern health and wellness facilities, including a gym and cafeteria. It houses more than 1,400 engineers and other staff – a large portion of the company’s technical workforce – but significantly, it also serves as a resource to support innovation at other company facilities around the world.

The center was designed from the inside-out to facilitate creativity and innovation. For example, it includes an Ideation Space, a large room that is very different from a normal workspace – one that encourages people to think differently. It has exterior glass walls, no tables, and features stimulating color schemes such as lighting that periodically shifts in hue and multi-colored sails hanging from the ceiling.

The Ideation Space is now used regularly, often by large groups of people, and is supported by one individual (the job rotates among employees) – known as a Hubster.  The Hubster is responsible for helping people work through the innovation process—brainstorming, thinking through ideas, and then building on those ideas.

Another key area is the Innovation Make Space. In this area, individuals or teams can do rapid bread-boarding of circuits or devices, allowing people to quickly transform an idea in their head into something physical. The ideas can be made into a prototype and immediately tested.

The Garage, which represents a further step in the innovation process, features 3D printing capabilities, encouraging an adaptive manufacturing approach and enabling individuals to take ideas and advance them quickly. In some cases, people will take something built by hand in the Make Space, perform a 3D scan, and then edit the design and use the printer to create the next version.

Yet another resource within the center is our open-source computing area. Here, users can access all kinds of open-source tools, install them on a machine, and test their functionality to find out if they could be useful in their project.

Finally, we have a collaboration space with an 84-inch monitor so that people can share concepts via video with a customer or with employees in other Harris facilities. The highly interactive area enables you to write on the displays and share ideas back and forth in real time.

All these different spaces work together to speed and support the innovation process.

Encouraging the Next Generation of Innovators

We also are committed to fostering the next generation of innovators. During the past ten years, the company has contributed more than $22 million and employees have volunteered more than 11,000 hours in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) outreach. Our STEM activities are aimed at motivating and inspiring students to study these critical disciplines to position themselves for careers in technical fields.

We have donated millions of dollars to engineering-oriented universities to support facilities, STEM educational and research programs, scholarships, and fellowships. The company has created world-class learning environments, provided scholarships and endowments, supported student organizations, sponsored special events and encouraged employee participation on advisory boards. Donations have paid for science and engineering labs focusing on innovation at a number of schools.

We also continually recruit from the leading colleges and universities to identify the top talent to join our team.  We are always searching for people with diverse backgrounds and skill sets that can help provide new perspectives and further drive a culture of innovation.

Spreading the Word

At Harris, the effort to foster a culture of innovation is a never-ending journey. I have been pleasantly surprised by the progress we have made since the Exelis acquisition, and how the efforts have united and integrated a mix of talent and skills from across our organization.  We have seen some of our most experienced people energized with a renewed spirit of excitement and adventure, leveraging their hard-earned skills in new ways to take on new problems.  And we have witnessed younger engineers collaborating for the first time with seasoned industry experts, and seeing their ideas transform into reality faster than they ever imagined.  

Finally, we have also enjoyed the extra benefit of our efforts having a positive impact even beyond our company walls. Our customers have reacted enthusiastically to the changes we have adopted. Some have even come in and worked collaboratively within our innovation environment and then have taken this approach back to their own organizations. I guess you could say that our excitement about our new innovation practices has become contagious. 


The Takeaways 

Harris Corporation, a 120-year-old government and defense contractor, has reinvented itself numerous times—most recently with the acquisition of Exelis, which transformed the business into a top-ten defense contractor and enabled Harris to take its bedrock entrepreneurial spirit to further heights.

Harris recently launched a Shark Tank-style competition that offers up to $50,000 for innovative ideas. In its first year, more than 100 proposals were submitted from around the company, and 20 were granted seed funding.

Last year, the company opened the Harris Technology Center, a $135 million, 464,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility that is now its R&D hub and an incubator for engineering creativity and innovation. It houses more than 1,400 engineers and other staff and serves as a resource to support innovation at other company facilities worldwide.