LONDON – Where should innovation sit with the business to drive the most impact? Does an innovation program have to be owned by the CEO to be successful? What are the key processes that support a collaborative innovation approach?

And what really is collaborative innovation, anyway?

For three days this week, 19 individuals with 11 Canadian-based organizations logged dozens of kilometres criss-crossing one of the most robust and mature centres of technology and innovation in the world in order to engage with their British peers and find answers to these questions and many others.

The one takeaway, the unifying theme? That effecting change in a large organization, spurring technologically driven progress, driving disruption from within, are vexing problems faced by companies on both sides of the Atlantic, and for that matter around the world. And if answers are to be found, it will be by joining forces and cracking the nut together.

“We are all facing the same challenges within our own organizations,” says Santanu Pal, Vice-President of Enterprise, Advanced Analytics with CIBC, one of three representatives from CIBC on the tour, which was hosted by Communitech. “We’re all asking the exact same questions.”

The tour was the sixth to take place in recent years. Others have included trips to technology centres like Tel Aviv and Berlin. Tour participants this time included innovation representatives from not only CIBC, but Deloitte, Interac, TD Bank, Thomson Reuters, FairVentures, Morneau Shepell, gifVentures, the City of Kitchener, BDC and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“For me, a trip like this gives me three key things,” says Pal. “One, is to understand the challenges of organizations similar to ours; what are they going through? Are their challenges similar or different?

“In some ways, it reinforces where we are going and validates the journey we are on.

“The second piece for me that is very important is to find opportunities with startups that we can partner with to solve many of our problems. There are many organizations that are coming up with very new and innovative solutions. Seeing some of those solutions and seeing how we can incorporate it in our evolution is a key opportunity for us.

“The third piece that is important for us on a trip like this is understanding how we can better collaborate as an ecosystem. Globally. It goes across sectors. It goes across organizations.”

Large, legacy companies are looking to, in effect, retrofit the same culture of change that has driven firms like Apple and Amazon to the top of the Dow Jones. The advantage for companies like Apple and Amazon is that technology and fast change are baked in; for others, they have to be acquired.

“It’s about where you want to be on the disruption curve,” says Warwick Hill, Microsoft’s Managing Director for Western Europe, who was part of discussions with the group on Day 2. “Do you want to disrupt yourself or do you want to be disrupted?

“If you disrupt yourself, you’re in control of the situation, you can set the agenda, you can set the timeline and manage it in a stable way that is controllable to the market, and ultimately to your clients and employees and your shareholders.”

The quest for solutions led to presentations from innovation specialists at companies like Deutsche Bank, retailer John Lewis & Partners, media giant Thomson Reuters, Visa Labs and enterprise software company Privitar. Tours were undertaken at accelerators like Huckletree and Digital Catapult. Group discussions with firms large and small unfolded at the offices of global communications company Instinctif, hosted by Whitespace Ventures and attended by members of the High Commission of Canada.

All of it was aimed at helping big companies harness change in a rapidly changing world. And over and over again the theme emerged: Corporate innovation is hard, sometimes it’s painfully slow, and yet it’s critically necessary. The problem is that there are no simple, one-size-fits-all answers. Hearing about the attempts made by others, seeing what worked and what didn’t, is valuable.

“I think for these teams, they take a look at it as: they’re given an opportunity to talk and discuss common challenges and discover ways to overcome [them],” says tour participant Chris Greenfield, CEO of the Burlington, Ont.-based venture capital firm gifVentures. “Largely those are around commitment, leadership, collaboration, funding, support, for something that can be so disruptive and can change a company with such a drastic positive impact.”

And locating the answers, Greenfield says, just might make the world a better place in the process.

“There’s a uniform commitment for change. I think [this is] not just a problem for innovation. It’s a bigger problem for overall society.

“We’re focused largely on individual achievement and monetary benefit in the short term and we don’t necessarily keep an eye on what’s best for a company longer term – but also what’s best for people longer term and humanity.”