In part one of the Idea-driven Workforce, we discussed ways to engage employees in innovation and the five characteristics of effective employee innovation. In part two, we will look at operating a successful employee-driven innovation program in your organization -- what works and what doesn't. 

Pitney Bowes, a US$ 5.4 billion provider of software, hardware and services that integrate physical and digital communications channels with 33,000 employees across the globe, has long understood the connection between an engaged employee base, innovation and growth.

In early 2008, Chairman and CEO Murray Martin challenged his team with a specific call to action, to “include the entire workforce in innovative thinking around product, service, process and customer experience to generate organic growth.”

At the start of 2009 a cross-functional team launched IdeaNet, an internal web community built around “idea challenges” that enable employees to generate and shape ideas. The IdeaNet team works with business leaders and their project team to frame relevant challenges, engaging anywhere from a small number to all global employees. Employees have tackled 52 idea challenges to date.

After two years, over 6,500 employees from 23 countries have participated in IdeaNet, about one-third of all global online employees. 4,000 ideas have been submitted since launch, ranging from growth opportunities to process improvements and ideas to increase customer value. Business unit leaders have adopted 900 ideas for implementation, and a number of tracked actions have realized US$ 8m in revenue generated for Pitney Bowes.

Insights

After managing the program for two years, the IdeaNet team has gained a number of key insights into operating a successful employee-driven innovation program:

Ideas are Built, Not Born

The most actionable ideas are those that incorporate input from multiple contributors. When ideas can be clarified, expanded and built upon, they are more complete and actionable. Forty ideas contributed to three major outcomes from a sales challenge, with multiple ideas synthesized by the project team into each action.

Not all Innovation is Breakthrough

Every challenge doesn’t need to revolve around the most pressing global priorities of the business. Giving employees the chance to weigh in on more specific problems helps to reinforce the notion that anyone could participate in innovation. Challenges to name products have been highly engaging for employees, and showcased the organization’s creativity. Employees named the PBBI Geosk™ software platform, eliminating the need to hire an external marketing firm.

Communication is Critical

Share details on program results whenever possible. Employees don’t expect that every idea will be implemented, but they do expect a certain level of transparency, including details on which ideas were acted upon. The outcomes of each challenge are summarized and published on the corporate intranet and distributed to participants.

Elevate your Lead Users

Within PBBI, the software unit of Pitney Bowes, 77% of employees have participated on IdeaNet, which they leverage to feed their development pipeline and engage engineers from around the globe. They are highlighted as the model for employee innovation across the company.

Innovate Between Organizations

IdeaNet has launched three co-sponsored challenges, with two or more business leaders from different units jointly owning the challenge. The benefits of these collaborations and the merging of cross-functional teams have enabled teams to jointly create new processes with both teams at the table. The legal and procurement organizations recently co-sponsored a challenge and streamlined their procurement agreement process to reduce time spent by both parties.

Innovation in Action Needs

Design First, Technology Second 

What works: The program design and processes were elevated as the most important element for success, while the idea management technology is a tool to support the program. Too often, enterprises fail because they expect the tool to drive their success. IdeaNet’s program design elevated the behaviors we wanted to reinforce and enabled the program to evolve over time.

Sponsored and Focused

What didn’t work: During an initial pilot of IdeaNet, experimentation with un-sponsored challenges proved an nonviable approach. Without ownership of the question and consequently, the ideas, there was no closure with submitters or follow-through on ideas.

What works: Business leaders come forward with challenges focused on current business objectives and problems. A senior leader is identified as the figurehead of the challenge, and a review team is comprised of those who will own and manage the outcomes. Senior level sponsorship on a pressing topic ensures ownership of the ideas and commitment to implementation.

Implementation & Follow-Through

What didn’t work: Simply collecting ideas from employees and filtering them is not enough. 

What works: A strict process was implemented for challenge closure. All ideas receive a decision and for those that are adopted, a description of time frame and next steps. Outcomes are published broadly and so teams are held accountable for the ideas they commit to.

Measuring Results

What didn’t work: Expecting results or value generated too soon. 

What works: Set realistic expectations for when you will begin to determine value from an open innovation program. It takes time to implement ideas and track them as they begin to generate value. Two years is a good baseline to start determining impact, especially for growth area opportunities.

Accepting Failure

Despite the best design and planning efforts, some idea-sourcing events will still fail. We’ve identified that around 25% of our challenges (15 of the 52) have contributed little value for a variety of reasons:

  • Sponsor or Project Lead leaves the company
  • Vague question leads to vague responses or poor participation
  • Little to no team follow-through on actions and commitments
  • Cultural barriers to participation were identified among certain employee groups and in some international locations

Conclusion

Results of the program to date are visible across the organization. Challenge outcomes have affected the bottom line, contributed to strategy, increased employee engagement and created additional intangible benefits.

As social technologies become more integrated into day-to-day business, this trend of employee-driven innovation is likely to continue. Understanding how to engage employees is at the core of building a culture of innovation. Today, tools incorporating Web 2.0 technology make it easier to engage employees at every level at a whole new level