Large organizations often struggle with effective innovation programs. As this HBR article explains, there are widely recognized barriers to driving an innovation culture within an organization. A CEO proclaiming the value of innovation in the company’s vision statement will not suddenly make employees begin sharing ideas and trying new ways of doing things. But organizations need to rely more and more on those employee insights, not least because employees know where the opportunities are.
While creating an innovation culture has always been important for companies, some critical shifts have taken place over the last decade that demand a fresh look at how it is done. First, technology is quickly changing enterprise operations and digitally connected customers demand better user experiences every day. As COVID has shown us, being digitally connected is no longer optional for a company to survive. Traditional R&D labs-based innovation programs may not be agile enough to keep up in this environment.
Second, ubiquitous connectivity (M2X, IoT) and a technology aware (and increasingly digitally native) workforce is giving employees an unprecedented ability to develop insights that can benefit the companies where they work. There is a need to tap into this reservoir of ideas in a structured way.
Finally, as the 2019 Gallup Workplace Engagement survey reports, a staggering 53 percent of employees are “not engaged” at work and a further 13 percent are “actively disengaged,” presenting a huge opportunity for companies. Taking an employee-centered approach to innovation programs can be one way to drive engagement and positive business outcomes at the same time.
Making the Most of an Employee-Based Crowdsourcing Program
Businesses often try to harness employee ideas through an employee-based innovation crowdsourcing program, which is a good start. But there are some things that need to be kept in mind that can make the program successful.
As COVID has shown us, being digitally connected is no longer optional for a company to survive.
- Treat your innovation program as a product that you are selling to your employees: How easy do you make it for your employees to share their ideas and convert them into actionable projects? Is the UI easy to use and ideas easy to categorize? Employees, especially the ones on the frontlines, often see the problems first and can play a huge role in developing effective solutions. Making it easy and worthwhile for them to share ideas should be the first priority.
- Don’t develop your program only for the ‘Edisons’ in your company: The ability of an individual to spot opportunities is not an “all or nothing” option; we all lie somewhere on a spectrum. Some think of “outside the box” innovative ideas once a day, others are triggered far less often. Making the program user-friendly for everyone with an idea will make it more inclusive, and therefore, effective.
- Connect the problem with the problem solver: An innovation only occurs when a problem meets a solution. An assumption that many employee crowdsourcing programs make is that the employee seeing the problem also has the ability to create a solution for it, which isn’t always true. Organizations need to be deliberate and creative in their use of technology platforms to connect the person who sees the problem, but may not have a solution with a person who has a solution, but does not know the problem exists.
- Get diverse voices on the table as problem solvers: Innovative solutions are most effective when they go through an iterative process where diverse voices have a chance to give input. Diversity in the work roles, training, and life experiences of employees engaged in the process can bring perspectives others have missed and prevent groupthink. Engaging diverse teams in these programs right from the start can be critical for the program’s success.
- Make your innovation platform about more than just the big product ideas: While it helps to focus on the big innovations, the same innovation platforms can be effective to gather smaller, incremental innovations that can be more quickly tried out. A tiered review structure can help expedite ideas with low risk, while others needing elaborate investments can follow a more thorough review process.
- Engage your employees through their favorite causes: In addition to driving innovation, an employee idea-sourcing platform can be used as an effective engagement tool as well. Businesses can create initiatives around causes their employees care about, engaging employees in ways other than short term financial metrics.
Creating an innovation culture takes persistence along with the right platforms to deliver results. Technology at our fingertips has made us into consumers of information, often about things we have no domain expertise in. But that is exactly where the value lies. By providing an opportunity for employees to share their semi-formed thoughts, and then using a structured approach to fine tune and develop them into implementable ideas, businesses can use employee insights in the best way possible. And it pays to engage them.
Nikhil Marathe is a consultant with AT&T, advising businesses on technology strategy and digital transformation. He is also the Founder Chair for the AT&T Innovation Network, an award-winning, employee-based innovation program within AT&T. He currently serves on their Advisory Board.