If IT professionals are to maintain their relevance as influential, strategic leaders in an organization, they need to do a lot more than just ensure that the lights are kept on—they need to be drivers of innovation. And the best way to accomplish that just might be to crowdsource it.
That’s the message being advocated by James Gardner, CTO of Mindjet, a mind mapping and innovation management software provider in San Francisco. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Gardner in his capacity as the technology leader of Spigit, which was acquired by Mindjet in 2013 to become the innovation management software arm of Mindjet. Gardner opened the conversation by explaining Spigit’s role as a platform for crowdsourcing idea generation to drive innovation:
Spigit is involved in building technologies that enable crowds to contribute to change in businesses, mainly large businesses. We do that by enabling individuals to give their best ideas, usually in response to a top-down challenge. So maybe a CEO or a CIO will have a particular problem they want to put to the crowd to get solutions. We use a number of statistical and other techniques to ensure that the crowd responds in a way that is usable by that leader. We typically find, when leaders put these challenges out, that they get very large numbers of responses. We had a challenge once that got 10,000 ideas—it was a large, multinational bank. So the primary focus of what we do is making sure that those kinds of things are not popularity contests, so that the output we give to the leader is specific and targeted at the very best thing the crowd can think up at that time. The second part of what we do is we provide tools and services that enable leaders to take those ideas and get them done in a crowd type of a way. Our customers are the largest enterprises—the Fortune 500 is our usual target, and our usual buyer is either a CEO or a CIO, and sometimes it’s a chief innovation officer.
I asked Gardner what cultural prerequisites a company needs to have in place in order for Spigit to be effective. He said it begins with an organization deciding that it wants to be more innovative:
What we very often see is someone, particularly in the IT organization, is tapped with the mission to drive innovation. The answer to this problem clearly must be a tool, and buying a tool from Spigit is quite often what happens. We often find that we have to engage in a bit of coaching, a bit of remedial training, perhaps, because the innovation problem really is not a technology problem—it is a people problem first. So a prerequisite would be that you have a desire to be innovative, and your leadership has given your people permission to innovate. Usually, people don’t know that they’re allowed to do these things until someone tells them—that’s a prerequisite for success. Generally, innovation programs that involve lots of people in a transparent way are more successful than innovation programs that involve few people in a non-transparent way. For example, when you have an R&D group that is not necessarily visible anywhere else, that tends to be less successful than a broad group—a crowd across the enterprise, where there is open transparency everywhere.
Gardner went on to acknowledge that the crowdsourcing model is not without its challenges:
Sometimes the crowd tells leaders what they think they’d like. Then the question is, “Will I believe the crowd, or will I do what my gut says?” We’ve shown statistically that when you have a properly mixed crowd, it will tend to do better than even very senior experts will. Sometimes what the crowd gives back is not that palatable to leaders. Then the question is, “What should I do about that?” Another challenge we find is organizations—particularly large organizations with a long history—are nervous about this idea of the crowd forming in the first place. When we start to talk about crowds, they worry that what they’re going to get is a mob. They worry, for example, “What if this huge crowd of 1,000 people gangs up on the CEO? What do we do then?” So we’ve had to invest in building crowd management tools—sophisticated sociological mechanisms to prevent mobs from forming, and to direct crowds in useful directions.
Gardner had noted at the outset that the crowdsourcing effort typically stems from a top-down challenge, so I asked him about instances in which Spigit has been used to address an issue that arose from the bottom up. He said the challenge of top-down vs. bottom-up is something they see all the time:
We have a lot of examples where a frontline employee has proposed an answer to a problem, and that is adopted across an organization. A great example of that is AT&T’s DriveMode product, which came from an employee at AT&T who actually had a significant personal issue with someone texting and driving, and who made this proposition that was adopted. … AT&T uses our software in a bottom-up fashion, so employees can propose anything that is important to them at a particular time, and the crowd collaborates with them to get that thing done. It’s a very advanced use case at AT&T. … Let’s face it, 10,000 employees on the front line are very likely to know what sorts of pains you have. But it’s a difficult process to get organizations to agree that the top-down leadership can exercise just a little bit less control, and that the results from that can be good. We have this whole cultural shift occurring around that.
Gardner wrapped up the conversation by emphasizing the role that crowdsourcing innovation can play in strengthening the position of IT leaders as senior influencers:
As the IT leadership is faced with commoditization, they’re seeing this innovation problem as their ticket to being at the top table. We’ve seen in many of our [customer] companies this idea that if the IT leadership can have control of the innovation platform, they’re suddenly much more strategic than they were before they had control of the innovation platform. That’s why we see so many of the buyers of these tools coming from the IT group. I think it’s possible for that kind of thing to continue and get stronger. The rise of cloud and millennials and BYOD is eroding the position of the IT leader as a senior influencer. We provide a solution that lets them bring new stuff to the business, which the business often doesn’t expect. IT usually has quite a large budget, but a lot of it is keeping the lights on. They want to be strategic, and they want to have something at the top table beyond keeping the lights on. It’s been very interesting watching that trend.
I also had the opportunity to speak with Gardner, and with Mohan Nair, chief innovation officer at Cambia Health Solutions, about Cambia’s use of Spigit’s crowdsourcing platform. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.