Knowledge-based companies have been driving much of the economy, especially in the United States and Europe. Information technology, media, biotech and pharmaceutical, financial services companies and many more are based on the ability to generate good ideas, turn them into technology and, eventually, products. The “business” of these companies is intellectual property (IP) — basically an idea that has value. Even companies that don’t make money directly on IP have to worry about it.
IP is not only a product idea. It may also be a better way of doing business, a price model that offers a competitive advantage, or a way to achieve operational efficiencies.
Finding the Good Ideas
Surfacing and then vetting these ideas represents a serious problem for companies. A lot of ideas never find their way to the right person and never benefit the company. Even a good idea might not be right for a company or just impractical at that time. To deal with problems of idea generation, many companies have turned to social ideation software. Social ideation software is designed crowdsource ideas and then allow for commentary and polls about these ideas as a way of screening them.
The basic premise behind social ideation is that by providing a forum, a lot of great ideas that never float to the top will find their way to the right eyes. Sharing those ideas will allow them to be quickly vetted and fleshed out so that they are ready to be used by the organization.
Shortfalls of Social Ideation
Social ideation software has some serious problems though, which have given social ideation a bad name in many companies. Probably the biggest problem with social ideation systems is that they generate more bad ideas than good ones. The concept of the “wisdom of the crowd” can be heavily overstated. There is just too much chaff and not enough wheat. Ideation software often allows bad ideas to take hold and waste the time of others.
Not everyone in the crowd is socially skilled — which crowdsourcing often exposes. Someone shares what they think is a good idea only to be ripped apart. They end up feeling hurt and embarrassed. The people who insensitively criticized the idea are now viewed as not the kind of people others want to interact with.
Finally, crowdsourcing is an intellectual property (IP) management nightmare. Too many eyes are not good from an IP management perspective. Any one of those sets of eyes represents a way for the IP to leak out and become tainted, evidence once more of the possibility of wasting time and effort with social ideation. In many cases, the idea is not tenable because it already exists as a patent or other type of IP. Allowing people to become vested in the impossible is unproductive.
How to Get the Ideas Flowing
How does one leverage the power of social interactions to generate and evaluate ideas while protecting company IP, the integrity of the social process and ensure that ideation is productive? The answer is the same as for most collaboration systems — marry the freeform sharing of the social environment with the structure of a workflow.
Create moderated groups that allow a knowledgeable person such as a manager or IP counsel to shut down inappropriate or unproductive interactions and push ideas through a more formal path when necessary. If a good idea surfaces, it can be pushed into a workflow that protects and governs the idea. Once the idea moves into a workflow, social interactions such as conversations can still be used to enable a smaller and more knowledgeable team to refine and ratify the idea. If the idea is not viable for any reason, the moderator can shut it down or it can be declined in the workflow without public awkwardness. By closing down ideas that are not viable, unproductive conversations are halted. Participants are now free to focus on ideas that are more practical and have a real chance of becoming an asset to the company.
As we've seen time and again, freeform communication has its limitations. Social enterprise software was introduced into companies as a way of overcoming some of the limitations of formal processes, not to entirely replace them. This is very true of ideation. Traditional idea generation and inspection workflows have a purpose. Social interactions can enhance the process of ideation, but cannot replace it.
About the Author
Tom Petrocelli is research director, enterprise social, mobile and cloud applications at Neuralytix. He is an experienced marketing, technology and business executive with 29 years in the computer technology industry.
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