A lot of companies use an ever-more-sophisticated array of online social tools in an attempt to connect their people, get a flow of ideas going, and spur innovation. But after an initial flurry of activity, the initiatives often fizzle and the new tools get tucked away somewhere. What goes wrong? Why is the goal of a more collaborative and innovative organization so elusive?
Consider a real example: Not long after a company created an online suggestion box on its new intranet, with all the bells and whistles of the latest social-media technologies, an executive lamented: “All we get are a bunch of complaints and impossibly wild ideas that we couldn’t follow up on in a million years.”
And there lies the problem. The span of ideas and suggestions on internal social platforms is often so extensive that follow-up is impossible. When ideas are ignored, or at least appear to
people quickly get discouraged and stop contributing.
The solution is as simple as the problem: Put the resourcefulness and creativity of your people to meaningful and specific use. This particular company reversed the function of the suggestion box. Rather than treating it as a receptacle for whatever anyone wanted to talk or complain about, the company turned it into a “solution” box — a place to get help solving specific problems or capturing new business opportunities. Employees are individually invited to participate. Some are chosen randomly; others are picked on the basis of their experience and past practical insights about the topic.
The company’s leadership team launched the solution box by posing a question, via email, to several hundred employees: “What is the best way to show appreciation to our new clients for their business?” They were invited to propose practical solutions and to bring in other people who might have good ideas or experience to share. For inspiration, the email included an example of an appreciation gift sent by a well-known company.
Within hours, a lively online brainstorming session was underway. After several promising ideas were identified, all employees were asked to vote on their favorite idea by “liking” it online.
The resultant product was nothing earth-shattering. It was a personal letter from one of the business directors along with additional support (free of charge) to get the client up to speed using the company’s products and services. The real benefits extended well beyond the letter and support offered. Employees who participated gained a better understanding of their purpose to serve clients, and they felt more engaged. As one participant put it, “It was great to help the company along and to know that the results of our efforts can be seen in such a short time.”
Or take the example of a large industrial group we worked with. Rather than determining the attractiveness of a certain customer segment using a traditional approach of gauging size, growth rate, competitor positions, and profitability, the head of global marketing used social-enterprise tools. He began with a simple, direct question to the people closest to the markets, his sales and account managers: “If from now on you could serve only one segment, which one would you choose … and why?” As their opinions flowed in, with everyone bouncing ideas off one another, he asked them to rank the three segments they believed would have the most potential in the next five years. Their answers reflected consensus around certain segments and pointed to others that deserved further investigation.
There is significant value in expressly inviting participants into a discussion rather than sending blast emails. People tend to rise to the challenge of an individual invitation and take responsibility for passing it on, even if they know they were selected at random. But don’t keep your invitation list too short. It’s important to be generous with the invites, in order to get sufficient capacity and cross-functional expertise. And to get the most enthusiasm from the participants, don’t appoint people; simply ask for their help.
Social and collaborative tools alone do not create a flow of ideas and innovations. But they can be effective in getting people to put their minds to problems and offer ideas for consideration. To access a wealth of untapped employee potential locked up in departments and functions, all you have to do is ask the right questions.