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Murano Magic-Lessons in Innovation


Last updated 8/5/2010

Back before the Byzantine Empire, the artists of Venice, Italy, crafted beautiful hand-blown objects from glass. Centuries later, on the remote island of Murano off the coast of Venice, the descendants of these artists continue. As I stepped off the boat that ferried us to this little island, I knew that I was about to encounter an ancient business that knew how to keep pace with the times; a perfect example of using innovation to grow a business and keep it thriving.

The Murano glass business is laced with inherent obstacles. First, there is the problem of location. This island at the edge of the Adriatic first became a home for glass blowers in the late 1200s, when Venice outlawed the use of glass furnaces within its city walls. So the first problem the glass blowers had to overcome was its remote location, a 30-minute trip by the often crowded local water bus. It is not an ideal journey. In addition, there is the issue of the product itself. Most tourists do not want to transport delicate glass items home in their suitcases. And unless a person collects glass items, glassware might be viewed more as a practical, functional item rather than a luxury item to buy on vacation.

Faced with these challenges, the proprietors of the island have used their creativity to develop a flexible business model—one that changes and grows over the years to keep their enterprise viable. The one constant is that it is based on cross-business alliances that help the business thrive.

First, to address the problem of location, Murano artists make sure their glass products are readily visible and available to Venetian businesses. Whether it's dining, sleeping or shopping, Murano glass surrounds visitors, subtly creating an interest in and desire for the glass. Next, to alleviate the transportation issue, Murano glass cooperatives partner with upscale hotels, providing easy transportation to the island via high-powered water taxis. A trip that would normally take over 30 minutes and cost $100 is instead pared down to a rapid 15 minutes, at no charge. The short, pleasant ride past historical Venetian palaces and through charming, winding channels creates a positive feeling for the customer.

Finally, once the customers are on-site, they are treated to an educational demonstration by master craftsmen to acquaint the consumer with the various levels of artistry and quality that go into each glass product. Finally, the personal guide who is assigned to every group flawlessly switches from tour guide to salesman. The customer is left asking: "How will I get this home?" The guide assures the customer that free shipping and insurance are built into their flexible pricing structure.

What can your business learn from the savvy Murano glass blowers? The importance of innovation. According to a recent American Management Association/Human Resource Institute study, The Quest for Innovation, the number one reason businesses must pursue innovation is to respond to the demands of their customers. In the Murano case study, the glass companies work to innovate, to re-create their business to keep it viable.

Leaders’ actions can either support innovation or derail it. Here are several strategies for leaders who want to use innovation to gain a competitive advantage:
  • Develop a clear innovation strategy. Include the use of business models as a part of the plan.
  • Make sure your customers are an integral part of the innovation process. Make it easy for them to do business with you.
  • Build a culture where innovation is visibly rewarded.
  • Coach leaders to be "innovation leaders."

Not surprisingly, back in Murano, I bought the hand-blown glasses, each one a unique work of art. Just an hour before my visit to the historic island I had no idea that I would want to make the purchase. But happily, each time I drink from the glasses I will be reminded of the innovation that has sustained this business through many centuries.

To read the complete AMA/HRI study, The Quest for Innovation, visit AMA’s Website.