It’s been said that no man (or woman) is an island, and this is as true in innovation as it is anywhere else. Communication and the ability to collectively brainstorm has proven to be a great benefit to the corporations that engage in it, and social platforms like Jive, Telligent, Chatter and internal wikis have allowed this process to be faster and more inclusive than ever before.
But most companies with social platforms use them primarily for knowledge sharing. Innovation goes beyond knowledge sharing and requires breakthrough thinking. Implementing a social platform within an enterprise has its challenges, but companies who fail to use them to spur innovation miss out on a significant growth opportunity.
Innovation — whether aimed at product innovation or business models or some other type of innovation — is critical for an enterprise to succeed. A 2013 survey by PwC of over 1,700 board-level executives found that 93 percent expected innovation to drive a substantial portion of their expected revenue growth, with almost half identifying innovation as a competitive necessity. The survey also found that the most innovative companies in the study achieved growth rates 16 percent higher than the least innovative companies. Businesses that fail to innovate run the risk of losing market share to competitors, losing or failing to attract talent, or stagnating due to operating inefficiencies. Innovation can be a key differentiator among competing businesses.
Despite this recognition of the importance of innovation, many enterprises fail to pursue it successfully. Of more than 180 organizations surveyed in 2009, only 49 percent had created an executive level role for an innovation leader. The same organizations also reported the lack of systematic innovation processes as the biggest impediment to managing innovation, with 36 percent of respondents citing a lack of effective communication and collaboration as an impediment to innovation. In short, enterprises are struggling to manage innovation.
Many companies have used social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to support their outbound marketing and communications, and have used social platforms for internal purposes. But fewer have used social collaboration tools for innovation. This is, in part, due to the flat and unstructured nature of social collaboration, which runs counter to the hierarchical command and control structure of many enterprises. These traditional organizational principles trap vast amounts of knowledge in silos, inaccessible outside of departmental boundaries.
Why should enterprises pair innovation and social platforms, especially when each is difficult enough to implement as a stand-alone initiative? Traditional approaches to innovation — such as focus groups or market research — don't take advantage of the collective knowledge trapped within the many different departments, divisions or teams of an enterprise. They also face limitations of scale, restricted by resource availability or geographic restrictions.
Social platforms are well-suited to breaking through these barriers. They can significantly increase the scale of an innovation initiative. Social collaboration is not as time-intensive or costly as many traditional innovation activities, allowing enterprises to speed up the process.
There are few, if any, well-developed road maps for a company to follow when it decides to pair innovation and social platforms. But these four essential principles can help companies transform social platforms into productive tools for innovation:
1. Design social interactions as business processes
A company should not expect a social platform alone to lead to innovation. Just as companies establish business processes to address a need and ensure an appropriate solution, social collaboration is more effective when it has a defined purpose and structure. Recent research suggests social innovation is more likely to succeed when a challenging “problem-statement” is established, requiring diverse perspectives to lead to a breakthrough idea.
The platform is a tool; by designing a structure around it, it becomes a social business process. Enterprises can determine some of the “structural” elements of social business processes by asking and answering key questions: What is the main objective of the innovation effort? Should the personnel and resources involved in the social collaboration effort be drawn from logistics, manufacturing, product design, marketing or some other division or group? What metrics should be tracked or assessed? How should one measure success of a social-driven innovation business process? Other questions to ask might include, who will lead the effort? Will the social effort support a product or service offering, a market segment, or some other organization focus?
Remember that social business processes will benefit from having some structure, while allowing flexibility at the same time.
2. Create an environment of trust and engagement
Historically, innovation has been centered in a specific department (such as an R&D unit) or relied on close ties among a team of participants. Social platforms bring together participants from different departments, time zones or geographic areas. It will be necessary to create an environment of trust and engagement when using social platforms, to encourage employees to be freely share their knowledge without fears of negative consequences.
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