Unleash innovation in foreign subsidiaries

Harv Bus Rev. 2001 Mar;79(3):131-7, 166.


In multinational corporations, growth-triggering innovation often emerges in foreign subsidiaries from employees closest to customers and least attached to the procedures and politeness of the home office. But too often, heavy-handed responses from headquarters squelch local enthusiasm and drive out good ideas--and good people. The authors' research into more than 50 multinationals suggests that encouraging innovation in foreign subsidiaries requires a change in attitude. Companies should start to think of foreign subsidiaries as peninsulas rather than as islands--as extensions of the company's strategic domain rather than as isolated outposts. If they do, innovative ideas will flow more freely from the periphery to the corporate center. Basing their arguments on a rich array of examples, the authors say that encouraging such "innovation at the edges" also requires a new set of practices, with two aims: to improve the formal and informal channels of communication between headquarters and subsidiaries and to give foreign subsidiaries more authority to see their ideas through. The challenge for executives of multinationals is to find ways to liberalize, not tighten, internal systems and to delegate more authority to local subsidiaries. It isn't enough to ask subsidiary managers to be innovative; corporate managers need to give them incentives and support systems to facilitate their efforts. The authors suggest four approaches: give seed money to subsidiaries; use formal requests for proposals as a way of increasing the demand for seed money; encourage subsidiaries to be incubators for fledgling businesses; and build international networks. As part of the last approach, multinationals also need to create roles for idea brokers who can link entrepreneurs in foreign subsidiaries with other parts of the company.

MeSH terms

  • Commerce / organization & administration*
  • Competitive Bidding
  • Economic Competition / organization & administration*
  • International Cooperation*
  • Organizational Innovation
  • Planning Techniques
  • United States