Talk about innovation was easy to find at E2 in Boston -- in the workshops, on the keynote stage and over breakfast.
UBM's E2 Conference has broadened its focus in the last couple of years but still has its roots in strategy for the use of Enterprise 2.0 technologies, or the internal collaboration piece of what's now more often referred to as social business. One of the traditional justifications for introducing social collaboration is to get the whole organization engaged in thinking about better ways to do business. Well, it ain't necessarily so -- not without a strategy that goes beyond software.
One of the early success stories for the enterprise social network launched by E2 Social Business Leader of the Year State Street Corp. was an "innovation rally" that attracted 12,000 posts on ideas to improve the business. It was a success at showing the potential of social collaboration and engaging employees, but it might not have been the best way to generate ideas. The big response was exciting, but it led to a tedious process of manually sorting through the ideas to find the ones with the most potential.
Partly because it was conceived of as a road test for the network based on NewsGator and SharePoint, that first rally did not employ any special software for organizing and prioritizing ideas. "Ideation" products such as Spigit provide a social framework for gathering and organizing ideas, either stand-alone or in combination with social platforms like Jive. State Street subsequently adopted a NewsGator ideation module.
The use of those products in a "democracy of ideas" to choose promising innovations was one of the things InformationWeek editor-in-chief Rob Preston asked about in a keynote stage interview with James McQuivey, VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research and author of the book Digital Disruption. McQuivey has written for us about how to profit from digital disruption, the current wave of innovation he says will wash away those businesses not prepared to ride it. He also participated in our innovation event at Interop.
Launching a general call for innovation ideas "is not the way to go," McQuivey said flatly. "It's not that the tools aren't good, but they are more often misused." Ideation tools can be helpful when used in combination with a focused strategy, but if the approach is open ended, "I guarantee you that will fail," he said.
The ideal is to challenge employees to come up with ideas targeted at a specific business problem, specifying as clearly as possible the goals and the criteria for choosing winning ideas, McQuivey said. If you do that, "the losers won't feel like losers" because it will be clear why the winning ideas more closely matched the criteria. When the rules of the game are left unspecified, the employees whose ideas are not selected are more likely to be left with hurt feelings and suspicions of political intrigue, he said.
Which brings me to my breakfast conversation with Ed Krebs, an IT architect at Ford Motor Company whom we recognized last year in our social business leaders roundup. Krebs presented at E2 on integrating automated systems with social activity streams, relating it to the ongoing OpenSocial integration standards effort. He is active with the W3C group mapping out the technology architecture implications of social business.
Krebs also ran an online innovation project recently, creating his own ideation app on SharePoint because it was easier than procuring a software product for that purpose. Besides, he is attached to an advanced technologies research group at Ford, so he is used to tinkering and experimenting. Krebs did try to impose some structure, with 17 specific challenges and a mechanism for voting on the best ideas. (Because management didn't want to constrain the process, he also wound up with an "other" category as a catch all.)
I thought the most interesting aspect of his ideation experiment -- which was focused on generating ideas for innovative IT projects that would help the business -- was that the winning ideas succeeded not just on their merits but because those who proposed them ran better get-out-the-vote campaigns. That is, they didn't stop with their IT colleagues but sought the votes of employees of the business units their innovations were designed to benefit. Does that discredit them? Well, no -- I'd argue there's a strong case for recognizing the ideas backed by people with some political skills, by which I mean the skills to navigate the organization and get things done.
Krebs agreed watching those social dynamics was one of the most interesting parts of the exercise.
Ari Lightman and Chris Labash of Carnegie Mellon University held a full-day workshop at E2 on how to create an organizational blueprint for innovation. Lightman is the director of CMU's CIO Institute and teaches a graduate course on Measuring Social. Labash is a former advertising executive who teaches communication and innovation in CMU's Masters in Information Management program.