Mining your organization for ideas

Idea management can help your organization stay competitive. Here are 10 best practices for getting the most from it.

Whether or not your organization has a formal innovation program in place, it's very likely you've already implemented some form of idea management. This could be as simple as an online suggestion box or as sophisticated as an ideas module that's part of a corporate innovation management suite tied to a global initiative.

Recently, the "ideas" topic has been getting renewed attention for a number of reasons. One of them is the number of software vendors adding ideas functionality to their various social and collaboration platforms, thus competing with the more traditional pure-play idea management vendors.

The principles and best practices of managing ideas are fairly well established, so you don't need to start from scratch. Here are 10 best practices that I've gleaned from my own experiences and from participation in a number of innovation consortia, such as the Berkeley Innovation Forum, that may help you with execution:

* Define your scope. Know what kinds of ideas you're after. Are they business-, process- or technology-related? Or all of the above? Are they big-bet, highly disruptive ideas, or more tactical and incremental in nature, or some combination of the two? You may want to define a set of innovation topics or categories to help guide your audience and assist with subsequent routing to appropriate reviewers and stakeholders.

* Know your target communities and innovation roles. While you may have some idea forums that are open to all employees, such as general suggestions, it's important to know your target communities and the types of ideas you want to solicit from each. Determine your "open innovation" strategy and develop a plan for how you'll involve customers and business partners in addition to employees. You may also want to explore the concept of innovation scouts and brokers to see if that model may work in your organization. Basically, scouts and brokers are formally assigned resources who search for opportunities and then direct them to the appropriate parts of the organization.

* Align the process with your organization's sophistication and needs. The level of granularity of your idea-submission forms, as well as the complexity of your business processes for opportunity categorization, prioritization and ultimate investment, needs to be tailored to the maturity of your organization. Start simple to help spur adoption, and then go from there.

* Ensure that processes are in place for appropriate evaluation and implementation of ideas. Ensure that you have all the people, processes and technology to act on the ideas in an appropriate and timely manner. Ideally, link to a corporate innovation program. This requires executive sponsorship, funding and assigned resources who are ready, willing and able to implement these processes.

Evans diagram
An innovation database should capture existing intellectual property and emerging trends in addition to ideas for new products and services.

* Get a handle on your existing intellectual property. In your quest for fresh ideas, don't ignore suggestions about leveraging your existing assets and intellectual property in innovative ways.

* Pay attention to rewards and recognition. Most research over the last several years has shown that rewards tied to innovation need not be financial in nature. The most popular practice is to recognize employees publicly -- you might mention them in a companywide email or spotlight them as lead innovators on the company's innovation portal. Financial incentives are typically reserved for issued patents or significant ideas that have made it all the way to successful commercialization.

* Incorporate event-based ideation sessions. While there is certainly value in corporate idea repositories or innovation databases that are always open, it's a good idea to supplement them with highly focused, event-based innovation sessions, such as one- or two-day innovation workshops. It's not a one-size-fits-all thing.

* Assign a cross-functional council for governance. As is the case with knowledge management initiatives, having a cross-functional council for governance of innovation processes can help to ensure that all departments and business units are represented and maximize company-wide coordination and collaboration. * Link to the rest of the innovation pipeline. An ideal end state for idea management is to have it be a natural part of the organization's overall innovation management processes. The idea management aspects are simply the front end of the innovation pipeline, with the overall objective of increasing the number and quality of ideas coming into this pipeline and the overall throughput of the pipeline into downstream revenue.

* Implement metrics to track progress. Finally, as with most initiatives, it's important to have measurement techniques in place so you can monitor your progress and make adjustments as needed. A best practice from the Corporate Executive Board in terms of innovation metrics is to measure three key areas of your innovation pipeline: pipeline productivity (the flow rate of ideas coming into and moving through the pipeline), pipeline health (investment and spending metrics to show amount of spending on innovation-related initiatives) and business outcome (quality metrics such as customer satisfaction and revenue from commercialized ideas).

With enterprise social computing platforms becoming more and more pervasive, and with increasing employee acceptance and adoption of social collaboration, now may be an excellent time to reassess your approach to idea management. You can think of today's climate as a social tailwind that will help you optimize your environment for harnessing the collective insights of your many constituents -- whether they're internal or external to your organization.

Finally, in terms of developing and scaling these ideas, it all comes down to budget. The aforementioned innovation program needs to help clearly define where funds come from, who owns the funds and how they are allocated across strategic investments.

Nicholas D. Evans leads the Strategic Innovation Program for Unisys and was one of Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders for 2009. He can be reached at nicholas.evans@unisys.com.

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