One of the more common misconceptions when speaking about innovation is to pigeonhole it as solely new products or breakthrough innovation — that “aha” moment. However, a cursory glance at the history of invention shows that most of the products people use today are the results of creative individuals building upon work that had already been done.
The same is true when it comes to talent management. The way employees’ talents are managed has improved incrementally as new research and practical applications have come about. When the two disciplines merge, it becomes working with creative people in creative ways, and the results can help drive a company’s success and profitability.
Innovation matters. Companies that have shown high levels of innovation are also more profitable and better positioned for future profitability than their competitors. Human capital consultancy the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) launched a survey on the topic in January 2012 that more than 300 participants worldwide answered. It asked questions about organizations’ effectiveness in different types of innovation such as breakthrough, incremental and business process, as well as the learning and development, rewards and recognition, and business strategy practices associated with innovation.
Among the findings were the answers to the basic question of whether innovation is correlated to market performance — the answer is yes — and also which types of innovation practices were statistically more likely to be correlated to more successful companies. Two practices that showed a high correlation to market performance are sharing knowledge by using technology-enabled collaboration or social media tools and hosting internal tradeshows or similar forums.
Crowdsourcing: Power in Numbers
Social media is often touted as a panacea for all business problems. Problems with employee engagement? Try social media. Need to improve facilities management? Try social media. But its actual effect on innovation and creativity remains under-researched. Michael Muller, research scientist for the Collaborative User Experience Group at IBM, is working to change that.
“We look at how to simplify in terms of making our internal processes better, and about every two years, even how to change the values of the company,” he said. “It’s a pretty sincere effort at crowdsourcing.”
The idea of crowdsourcing is not new, but actually using it to engage employee knowledge to solve a business problem is still rare. Muller explained one of IBM’s approaches:
“One of the programs, led by Jason Wild, usually lasts two days overnight, and we do what might be called a micro-jam in order to come up with new ideas about what our client has told about on the first day. This is by pre-arrangement, so around about 5 or 6 o’clock a few of the people on the staff support role put the questions in a forum, in one of our traditional IBM communities, and people start brainstorming, [possibly] in their pajamas. This goes on for 12 hours, and we have IBM consultants with the customers.
“At 9 o’clock [a.m.], they present, maybe not draft solutions, but draft approaches taken from 50 to 100 or more IBM staffers. It’s kind of a wonderful experience of putting a whole lot of IBM’s minds behind a question very quickly.”
A lot of the power of crowdsourcing comes from bringing in ideas and knowledge outside of an organization’s normal employee base. Muller said many sessions have been open to customers, suppliers and family.
“Ten to 15 years ago one of our VPs had a slogan, ‘None of us is as smart as all of us,’ meaning that it is better when there are more diverse minds out there,” he said. “We recently did an analysis of 26 of these very fast 12- to 72-hour brainstorming special events. We looked at diversity in terms of country and division within the company — kind of a disciplinary diversity. We found that the more sources of diversity were represented, the more productive, engaged and intercommunicative people were.”
The specific metrics used to measure productivity were the number of contributions divided by number of people who were invited to normalize the results, since some of the more heavily attended online events were generating more ideas. Engagement was measured by quantifying the number of different contributions a person might make and how often the individual returned to the forum. Intercommunication required looking at unique pairs of people who exchanged ideas. IBM found the correlations were statistically significant overall.
“We agree that ‘none of us is as smart as all of us,’” Muller said. “The conversation gets more interesting, richer, the more different people get involved.”
It’s not just company-sponsored events where technology-enabled communication can make a difference. Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, a number of IBM employees held one of these meetings to try to gather as many ideas as they could on some basic emergency management questions. Questions such as “How can we plan for disasters like this?,” “What technology would help in these situations?” and “How can we meet the most immediate needs?” were presented to the online community that IBM created in the immediate aftermath.
“Nobody got paid to do this, this was no one’s day job,” Muller said. “[Some] 1,200 people joined, 275 made some contributions, and the total number of contributions was 350, yet the cost of participation is extraordinarily low.”
With IBM’s permission, he analyzed the discussion, looking for statistics on breadth such as how many contributed to the conversation, and depth such as how long each reply lasted. He found a significant amount of each, but was surprised to see how few of the participants were from Japan. Twelve hours later, he said, Japan was able to get to computers and contribute too.
With so many clients in the country, this wasn’t a feel-good exercise for IBM. It gave the company a chance to better serve its clients by harnessing all of the creative minds that are important to business and the people the business serves.
Sharing at a Show
Using technology and social media platforms to increase communication can be helpful in idea generation, but talent leaders also will want to consider how it impacts actual hands-on product creation. That is not so easily shared using a digital format. Sometimes people need to touch, feel or use an item to understand it, or to be moved enough to light that creative fire.
Laura Shanley, employee communications specialist on internal tradeshows at Qualcomm, a wireless technology and services company, has been working on a solution to that problem.
Qualcomm has a number of venues to foster innovation. For instance, it has a three-day innovation experience where employees submit ideas, and their papers are reviewed by experts in the field, with rewards and recognition going to the best.
However, those sorts of activities are targeted at employees who normally work in a traditionally innovative role — ones in which creativity is associated with the job. But what about the rest of the employees? How do they engage in the product development at the heart of Qualcomm’s business model? Shanley explained how it works via the story of how the internal tradeshows came about.
“We as a company have a lot of marketing folks who attend tradeshows on a regular basis, like CES or those other large tradeshows. All employees can’t all go to those necessarily, so part of this is bringing that experience to employees so they can see what’s going on across the company,” she said. “We have several different divisions, so people tend to get their heads down in their work, and it makes it easy to lose sight of what’s going on across the company. This gives employees a chance to literally come outside and see what’s hot right now — what’s going on within the different groups outside of your silo.”
For the last five years, Qualcomm hosted a company-wide tradeshow. The annual event lasted about a half-day, and featured about 40 booths showcasing technologies from multiple divisions across the company. Employees had an opportunity to see and use the technologies, and to talk to people in other departments.
This knowledge sharing was not confined to the yearly event. Recognizing the need to have more idea exchanges while not taking valuable productivity time from employees, Qualcomm also hosted demo showcases attached to other meetings, such as during the employee all-hands meeting.
“There would be an employee update, a financial update, what we were looking forward to,” Shanley said. “With that we would invite employees an hour prior to the meeting to set up demos in the lobby in front of the meeting place to see them. That’s a low-effort way to put on a tradeshow and attaching it to a business-related event.”
To judge the tradeshows’ effectiveness, Shanley’s group surveyed attendees and participants, and found employees were more informed about what the company was working on, and that the shows increased employee collaboration and engagement.
This works well if a company produces tangible items, but things are different when innovation centers on business models or processes. Shanley said Qualcomm’s corporate R&D department also held an annual tradeshow across multiple floors in its R&D center where employees could walk up and down the hallways and in and out of the labs, see poster boards and hear what peers are working on.
Not all creative ideas make something out of nothing. Some of the best ideas build on what has been done before. When it comes to managing people, taking some of these ideas and repurposing them can facilitate innovation in most organizations.
Cliff Stevenson is senior human capital researcher for consultancy the Institute for Corporate Productivity. He can be reached at email@example.com.