Pros and Cons of Joining a Corporate Innovation Lab

At 456 strong (and counting), corporate innovation centers are on the rise in North America. Many of these centers occupy 10 metropolitan areas, including Atlanta, which have collectively created a “magnet” infrastructure that supports the innovation process.

Those tech pros who work at those centers have the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence (A.I.), biomedical tools, and drones. At first glance, that’s a huge opportunity—but each center has a distinct relationship with its parent company, as well as differing goals for those innovation efforts, according to Stan Vangilder, program manager for Southern Company’s Energy Innovation Center.

A lab’s mission dictates its structure. It can also ratchet up the pressure to deliver results. In light of that, job hunters need to consider a number of elements before deciding whether to join a corporate innovation center.

Find Your Favorite Flavor

Understanding the success metrics, expectations and level of integration with the parent organization can help you identify an innovation environment and role that you’re comfortable with.

For example, David Crean, innovation leader for the Anthem Innovation Studio, is charged with instilling a culture of innovation across the entire company. In pursuit of that end, the studio is responsible for hosting design thinking workshops, advancing UX ideas and incubating new solutions. While its complex mission demands a mix of hybrid and technical positions, staff members’ tasks and skillsets are dictated by what Crean calls “flavors of innovation.”

Those looking to broaden their skillset, for example, might go for a hybrid role that blends product management, workshop facilitation, and business analysis with UX design and a small amount of coding, Crean suggested. Those different experiences, in turn, can help a tech pro cultivate skills that will stay in demand well into the future. Those interested in sharpening their tech skills, however, may opt to stick with jobs such as developer, scrum master or project manager.

Those in more technical roles still need to wear multiple hats and collaborate with department heads. In addition to collaboration and teamwork, other must-have skills include self-motivation, flexibility, an ability to balance big-picture and little-detail thinking, and an insatiable desire to learn new things.

Remember, corporate innovation labs aren’t startups. Some are founded as standalone entities that focus on long-term research and development projects, while others have very specific, shorter-term goals for releasing new products or driving revenue. You need to find a lab that specializes in the type of work and technology that interests you.

“There is a misconception that innovation labs have less structure than big corporations and professionals sit around trying to come up with the next big thing, but the fact is that some of the work is arduous and not every idea turns into a commercial success,” Vangilder noted.

Consider the Lab’s Reputation

There’s no doubt that having a hot buzzword like “innovation” on your résumé can garner the attention of recruiters and prospective employers. In addition, innovation center employees spend a lot of time networking and promoting their efforts both internally and externally, which can certainly help boost one’s profile and contact-list.

However, the overall success of a lab and its individual employees can become somewhat intertwined in the eyes of outsiders, potentially affecting your marketability. Not only that, projects can end at a moment’s notice due to regulatory issues, shifting market demand or funding levels, which can prove frustrating. Check out a lab’s track record and reputation to make sure that you join a winning team.

“I think it’s important to not only understand a center’s mission, but what they mean by ‘innovation,’” Crean said.