On 26 January, the Novancia’s Student Entrepreneurs Club organised a Master Class with Jean-Charles Guillet, Innovation Governance Manager at Total, as guest speaker. An opportunity for the students to ask him questions about innovation in a major group wishing to retain part of its start-up spirit.
Innovation by Total
The Innovation Department was set up 3 years ago within the “Marketing & Services” branch. Objective: to reconnect with the innovative spirit of the early days, “because a successful big group may tend to rest on its laurels”, Mr Guillet says, “while it should instead stay true to its start-up spirit which has brought it to this point”.
Therefore, the Innovation Department is assigned with developing this spirit in the branch and supporting teams in their innovation processes.
Internally: a challenge and a platform
In an international big group like Total, innovations can exist at different levels especially as innovation does not necessarily rhyme with revolution. For the department, the challenge is how to capitalise on the best ones, such as replicating them. Since 2012, an internal challenge rewards the innovations performed by subsidiaries all over the World. For example, Total Philippines has stood out through a new process allowing constructing canopies for petrol stations – a very delicate task – through a simple pulley system. “A sparing innovation which has been replicated and now included in the specifications of every new station”, Mr Guillet explains.
The Marketing & Services branch uses this challenge as a barometer: “In 2012, we received very few projects, while today it is becoming difficult to process all of them”. Another interesting indicator: the internal poll submitted every two years to the employees of the group points out a very significant increase in positive opinion on the innovation.
Otherwise, the Innovation Department has launched the Build’INN platform, based on the model of crowdfunding platforms, which enables any employee to present his idea and the needs to realise it. The question is not to raise money, but just to mobilise volunteers and employees accepting to give time and share their expertise. “It’s a beginning of intrapreneurship”, Mr Guillet points out, “projects which succeed in mobilising enough employees are likely to materialise and, indeed, turn into business development projects from which Total could eventually become customer”. The group is currently reflecting on this subject.
However, it is useless to innovate if there is no market: “Researchers have sometimes great ideas without wondering if there is a market behind”. Therefore, the Innovation Department is also here to make the connection, especially as it depends on the trade branch of the group (Marketing & Services).
Externally: numerous partnerships with start-ups
At Total, the innovation goes hand in hand with the collaboration with start-ups as well “to discover new ways of working and revive the entrepreneurial spirit”. In March 2014, in a “meeting club” between start-ups and major groups, Jean-Charles Guillet discovered the very young company Yoomap, an open innovation software publisher created three months earlier. The charm worked and, a few months later, the business prospered: Total became the first customer of the company. A precious help that enabled Yoomap to canvass easier other major groups.
An open innovation prize has rewarded this partnership, “proof that David and Goliath can get along with each other and work closely”, the expert concluded. Each of them has been able to learn from the other: Yoomap has tested the “experimentation contract” set up by Total to simplify his contractual relationships with start-ups, while the group has contributed to the enhancement of the start-up’s software.
Many start-ups figure among Total’s suppliers. Actually the software developed by Yoomap aims for making easier the relationships between the various group entities and these small businesses (by facilitating the matching between needs and offers).
“A lot of start-ups raise barriers for themselves and don’t dare to canvass major groups”, Mr Guillet regrets. It is a mistake. Nevertheless, having a good idea is not enough to interest them: “You must have a fairly advanced service before contacting them”.
His advice to start-ups tempted by the adventure? “Favour gathering places between start-ups and major groups, by approaching the city council of Paris for example”. Finally, concerning big or small businesses, keep in mind that, with regard to innovation, success is not guaranteed: “You must try it, test it, talk about it with the customer, and shrivel up sometimes to start again…”. Remember that Nespresso made 6 failed attempts before succeeding in doing its espresso machine.
He also said that…
“Total has long been well known for the quality of its petrol stations toilets” ;-)
“As for innovation, it is often say that an idea that makes you laugh is a good idea”
“…Innovation, it’s a lot of communication, particularly at the start”
“In the world of innovation, every profile is good”