Innovation through collaboration: how to make the innovation process social

November 15, 2012 — Leave a comment

Paolo Calderari di Palazzolo, Andrea Pesoli
Originally part of the Social Business Manifesto published for Harvard Business Review Italia by OpenKnowledge team. Read more on: 
http://socialbusinessmanifesto.com/ 

“Creativity in itself shouldn’t be encouraged: we instead need to encourage creative solutions to real problems. Innovation is only “good” when it’s useful.”

“There’s no such thing as a bad idea! Just poorly executed awesome ones.”

Look beyond innovation for the sake of innovation. More and more organizations today find themselves having to find and exploit new ideas and opportunities in order to respond to growing competitive pressure and to changes in customers’ needs. The recent economic recession has only further accelerated the urgency of this change and the “demand” for innovation for companies.

The main objective of innovation is not (only) to create the next hot product. Various types of innovation exist and people need to be engaged and stimulated to recognise and pursue not only product innovation, but also process or business model innovation. We need a way to encourage innovation and make it “normal”, namely not to separate it from the rest of the business. It has to be treated systematically, like any process in which a problem is determined and a solution is found. Some of the key questions we need to ask ourselves are therefore: What do we want to obtain and how? What resources will we need? Who will be part of the team? What will be the factors to motivate people and what recognitions will be given? How will the initiative’s success be measured?

Creativity therefore doesn’t have to be seen as a mysterious gift or prerogative of few “talents”, but as the – daily – activity of creating not obvious connections, putting things together that are normally not together. Innovation is always more the product of a collaborative process among individuals rather than the result of the intelligence of a single person.

What is Idea Management?

But where are all of these innovative ideas hidden that are so necessary to drive growth, productivity and value creation? When innovation is more important than ever, the collaborative management of ideas (collaborative idea management) through functions and geographical areas can help organizations to make new ideas emerge, and to refine them and ensure that they reach the right people. This approach is also a way to make employees more responsible and recognise the ones who are more active in the innovation process, so as to measure and stimulate creative activity and to promote a more open, collaborative and social culture in organizations. In other words, to create one or more innovation communities that work in a vertical or cross-cutting way in organizations.

Idea Management is a structured process – an integral part of the innovation process – aimed at the collection, management, selection and sharing of ideas. This process is typically supported by specific technologies (Idea Management Platform) that provide methods and tools that make the union of ideas, their assessment and – in some cases – even their execution, more effective and amplified. Idea Management can be applied in various contexts, from incremental improvements to more radical ones, and it can even cover the entire company ecosystem, including external stakeholders, partners and customers.

It is the social evolution of the traditional “idea box”, where, however, the use of the social processes and technological platforms of Idea Management profoundly transforms its nature:

  • Various forms of participation: these systems value the contribution not just of the idea proposal but also of the cross-valuation (vote), comment or criticism of the idea;
  • Contamination: everyone sees proposals from colleagues and a consistent idea can be born out of a proposal which in itself is not very concrete, or is unfocused, by enriching the information and/or concept;
  • Emergence: the most read, most commented or most appreciated ideas emerge and stand out from others, allowing the community to rapidly see the selection process in progress;
  • Collective Intelligence: if duly supported, the community can make proposals evolve by exploiting the intelligence and knowledge present in the system;
  • Focus on people (and not just on ideas): the proposals that stand out also identify a group of people who believe in the idea and who could also be involved in its implementation.

How to make the innovation process social

There are quite a few contributions that underline the importance of considering innovation as an open process that must involve many players within or outside the same business ecosystem.

The concept of “players” in the innovation process is important and interesting, because it reinterprets a “social” company role that is not always made clear in an organization chart (or rather not only focused on the R&D function) or in a specific organizational role. Unlike the traditional stage-gate selection process, the social approach to involvement and to the realisation of ideas and improvement projects is based on the activation of three different communities: he who brings or generates ideas (explorers, perhaps the most common meaning of innovator), he who carries them out (exploiters), and he who has the task of selecting and assessing them. It is precisely this last role, typically concentrated in Management, which is of fundamental importance for facilitating and “bridging the gap” between explorers and exploiters. Instead of acting as a restraint or gate-keeper (as a team would act by sticking to the assessment methods based on expert committees), the team has to act with a role of broker, a key figure who supports and accelerates the realisation of an idea.

A typical innovation process will therefore have the structure shown in Figure 1.

PHASE 1: Setting of objectives and scenario

  • Identify the topics and main areas of applicability of the initiative. A punctual analysis can help to understand both the sensitivity of an organization towards specific business topics and the level of cultural alignment on the social approach to innovation (readiness);
  • Identify the key players in the innovation process: therefore not only the formal figures, but above all – as we have already seen – those who already play an important role at an informal level (e.g. broker);
  • Specify and define the topics on which to start the first phase of idea production;
  • Involve and form the support team (experts, assessors, moderators, …).

PHASE 2: Generation of ideas

  • Launch the initiative on a restricted group of people (soft-launch) with the twofold objective of having a punctual feedback from end users and starting to populate the platform;
  • Involve a wider group in the generation of ideas (full-launch);
  • Punctually manage the growth of the community, timely intervening to “correct” negative behaviours (e.g. unconstructive comments, missing information, inappropriate language) and award positive ones (e.g. connections between ideas, precise comments, …);
  • Communicate the state of progress within and outside the community, also giving visibility to Top Management.

PHASE 3: Idea selection

  • Give visibility of the phase of approval of single ideas directly on the platform, punctually engaging the experts in the assessment;
  • Select the ideas (or groups of ideas), based on various KPIs. Ideally, the services on which it is important to concentrate are impact on the company (e.g.
    turnover increase, cost saving, scope of the idea, brand value, …) and feasibility (e.g. resources necessary, time to market, investment, …);
  • Award those who come up with the best ideas and…realise them!

This process, especially in phases 2 and 3, can obviously be repeated whenever new innovation initiatives on specific topics are to be launched (see figure 2).

Schermata_2012-11-04_a_19

What to do and what not to do.

We end this article with a series of pieces of operational “advice” based on our experience:

  • Establish clear objectives. At times collaborative innovation initiatives are born within organizations as experiments or as extensions of collaborative social aspects. In these situations, the “learning by doing” approach sometimes takes over, and risks defocusing and dissolving the experience. In reality, to ensure the project’s success it is useful to initially identify clear business and result objectives, so as to strongly link the innovative process to an additional value brought to the organization and to its stakeholders.
  • Know the target. Before launching an innovation initiative, it is important to know who the participants in the process will be, in terms of profile, role, business unit and localisation in order to outline the best engagement strategy possible. Culture-country aspects must also not be underestimated. Tools like Social Network Analysis can also shed light on the existing collaborative dynamics and on the roles that some key players already play within the organization. These people should be punctually involved.
  • Manage the change and the alignment with the company strategy. The addition of an Idea Management tool must also be accompanied by a process of change management and alignment of the innovation initiative with the company strategy. There are many hidden barriers, firstly the natural low propensity to sharing and collaboration and the calling into question of formal roles. The communication, sharing and engagement of stakeholders in the process, especially if the approach is new within the company, are key to the initiative’s success and adoption.
  • Balance quality and level of engagement. Quality of ideas and level of engagement (e.g. number of people who actively participate) are two often conflicting objectives. We therefore need to know how to balance these two aspects in the various phases of maturity of the initiative, initially favouring engagement and introducing metrics to assess the quality of contributions once a certain consistency and stability has been reached in the community.
  • Exploit online and offline communication. As visually engaging and refined as it may be, online communication alone (email, launch videos, ….) still shows its limits. The best initiatives always mix online and offline elements in communication, especially when specific populations have to be involved in the initiative.
  • Being transparent in the assessment process. One of the weak points of the idea box approach is its lack of feedback in the assessment process. On open and social platforms, every remark, every feedback (e.g. a critical comment from an expert indicating the weak points of an idea) can be both the mainspring that makes the idea itself evolve and a moment of personal “formation” and formation for the community as a whole.
Schermata_2012-11-04_a_19

Finally, a few points for attention:

  • Only concentrating on the “numbers”. Modern platforms offer very refined and punctual analysis and reporting mechanisms. It is however important to avoid concentrating too much on the numbers alone (e.g. ideas, votes, comments posted, …), because the real value is in the interactions between people and the connections they generate. Different cultural backgrounds produce creativity and innovation. Favouring and appreciating different opinions, identities and perspectives therefore generates a greater level of innovation. Although it is possible to measure these dynamics, a linear relationship does not always exist with real added value. The phrase “Not everything that counts can be counted” is therefore valid.
  • Lowering the guard on community management. The promise to involve employees in an open, collaborative process of research and development of new ideas is certainly compelling. However, once the initial novelty and interest period has worn off, the community’s activity must be supported by constant specific communication and engagement initiatives. Be careful not to overestimate the impact of gamification dynamics which, alone, cannot increase and sustain the participation and involvement of users.
  • Sidelining usability and graphic aspects. The consumerisation of IT cannot be ignored. Users, whatever their profile or role, will definitely pay attention to aspects that are easy to use and access. It is therefore better to spend a bit of time making the user experience easy and pleasant.
  • Not involving sponsors/executives in the process. Innovation within large organizations is often thwarted by the presence of inflexibility, a uniform company culture, and communication flows that are too formalised. Executives therefore have the fundamental role of facilitating and accelerating the various phases of the innovation process and, ultimately, realising the ideas. Having finally stressed the aspects of change, the involvement of senior figures is important to lead (in terms of leadership) the cultural and – where possible – organizational change.

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