Many of the technologists that I speak with like the concept of social media, but stumble when it comes to cost justification. Innovation is a hard one to put a dollar sign on and social media certainly suffers from those ills. Crowdsourcing solutions have a better play in this area - if one can address a number of challenges. A recent conversation I had with BT Groups's Head of Innovation Services offers some clues on that score.
Crowdsourcing platforms enable organizations to quantify the thinking of their customers, employees and partners to develop new products and processes for the organization. Dell's IdeaStorm has churned out thousands of ideas, but Dell's not the only player to adopt crowdsourcing. Cisco's recently adopted Spigit for its I-Prize global innovation contest while the government is getting into the act with the City of San Francisco based on BrightIdea's Webstorm.
But internal facing innovation platforms aren't without their critics. Blogger Jay van Zyl points out a number of problems:
1. It becomes an administration nightmare. The more enthusiastic the organization the bigger the problem. Hundreds of ideas and only a few people to check, review, approve and re-direct ideas.
2. Volumes of ideas that have nothing to do with the business or its current challenges.
3. Dependence on specifically skilled people and a review process that is overly controlling.
4. Little- or no- follow-through on ideas to the individuals that participated in capturing ideas; resulting in damaging any further idea generation campaigns.
So when I had the opportunity to speak with John Nevins, BT's Head of Innovation Services, I jumped at the opportunity. The BT Group today spans more than 100,000 employees across 170 countries so finding a structure for developing innovation was critical. The company deployed BrightIdea's Webstorm as the company's innovation platform and over time BT has managed to collect more than 10,000 ideas from locations all over the corporation.
In total, BT estimates that more than £100 million has resulted from cost savings and revenue generation through the platform. One such idea saved the company "millions of pounds" by recommending a better way to remove cotton braided cables. A rubber spray applied to the cable prevented particles from the cables from coming off and making the cables easier and safer to remove.
In the few years since implementation, this technology has paid for itself in other ways as well. BT's experiences have led to a consulting practices that has engaged with companies, such as The Energizer Battery, to collect ideas from their employees and get products to market much faster.
Part of the BTs success was attributed to strong support that Nevins received from BT's CEO. The solid backing gave the innovation program the necessary weight to gain adoption in the organization.
BT also encouraged adoption through financial gain. BT rewards employees of up to 30,000 pounds for new ideas. At the same time, financial incentives aren't the whole story. "Incentives are important, but recognition is equally important," says Nevins. His team put out an internal newsletter that promotes the innovation process, highlighting the biggest contributors.
A big challenge is encouraging employees to be smart about the ideas they promote. BT's approach is to equip users with an innovation toolkit. Nevin says they've come up with several different methodologies on how to create and develop ideas. Employees are given three types of "tools"
- Hand Tools are quick-and-dirty tools like using innovation technologies based on "Pass the Parcel" to validate ideas.
- Power Tools are more sophisticated tools, such as the "Lotus Blossom" technique, for arriving at new ideas.
- Hire the Pros taps into a team few "Idea Coaches" that work for Nevin to help employees the ideas.
The Idea Coaches insure that the ideas meet basic criteria for a successful idea and then they're forwarded on for evaluation by domain experts for further assessment. If they deem it a good idea then they forward it on for fiscal analysis and ultimately implementation.
Crowdsourcing platforms are powerful accompaniments to an innovation process, but they're not a sole solution. A culture of innovation is necessary that encourages and rewards new ideas. Only by giving employees the proper tools and incentive can they address these challenges.