Leveraging Social Software to Harness Employee Innovation

Murali Sitaram
Many business benefits have been linked to the use of social software within the enterprise. Indeed, it has become common to find organizations using social tools (e.g., blogs, wikis, social network sites) to increase productivity, improve access to subject matter experts, and connect co-workers across functional and geographic boundaries. In many instances, these projects have matured from localized pilots relying on specialized tools from best-of-breed solution providers into an ad-hoc enterprise solution to informally address a collection of requirements. 

What we've seen in the industry over the past year or so is a transition from point tools to platforms. A platform approach reduces infrastructure complexity, delivers a more consistent user experience, and provides a common set of interfaces that make it easier to integrate social collaboration into enterprise systems. At the same time, we're seeing a shift from horizontal solutions that handle generalized information sharing and community building to more specific solutions that facilitate strategic business outcomes. Innovation is perhaps the most frequently cited use case for a more business-relevant use of social software.

In the past, innovation was the realm of a special group. Often there was someone in the company who had an innovation-related title and led a special innovation team. Leadership teams made them officially responsible for "the next big idea." However, by assigning responsibility to a few, organizations ended up pushing away others who might have had a great idea. Sending an email to the 'suggestion box' address was probably the closest many people ever came to actually participating in the innovation process.

Those days are gone. By relying on a chosen few, not only did we often find innovation efforts struggling over time to feed the idea pipeline, but the model itself has become out-dated. The world is moving at a faster pace with greater unpredictability than ever before. The only way a company can survive is if innovation becomes everyone's responsibility-and for that to happen-people need to feel that they can participate, and that their contributions will be valued.

We can make this happen on a scale not possible before. Organizations can leverage a platform approach for social collaboration to make the innovation process more open than ever before-involving not only employees but customers and other stakeholders as well. Here are some examples of how to make the innovation process more inclusive:

Improve the quality and quantity of new ideas by enabling people to easily publish, comment on, rate, edit and discuss ideas, regardless of who they are, or where they reside within the organization.

Enhance the ability for people to investigate and perfect their ideas by reaching out and involving subject matter experts throughout the company.

Encourage creativity and broader participation by allowing people to submit ideas in any format-text, audio, video, graphics, photos, etc.

Accelerate product enhancements once ideas have been gathered by using communities to collectively refine and prioritize features or new capabilities-including the capture and storage of review sessions so other participants can stay completely informed and aligned with decisions and actions on new ideas.

Protect intellectual capital and sensitive information by controlling communities' security level and by policy-based rules that govern what participants can access, edit, view or share. This should include the ability to satisfy logging and archival needs (e.g., compliance, records management).

While there are tools and applications in the market today that focus exclusively on innovation, there is a trend towards making innovation part of a broader user experience. People are not always going to be creative by going to a 'special place' to brainstorm. People are creative in the context of work, when they are constructing workarounds or seeing gaps that can be fixed if only there was an easy way to communicate the idea 'up the chain.' By investing in an enterprise collaboration platform that supports social and other application use, we can 'mainstream' innovation capabilities into a variety of everyday work scenarios.

An enterprise collaboration platform should support a dedicated experience for innovation when that's necessary, but also include the means to integrate ideation features into a variety of productivity, communications, content, and collaboration tools or line of business applications-and also support work scenarios where a mobile device is a person's primary computing experience. At the end of the day, innovation is too important to treat as a silo and too critical to an organization's survival to be inaccessible to all employees.

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