Harness Your Social Platforms for Innovation: 4 Essential Principles

6 minute read
Rahul Mehta avatar

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 ofthe 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, requiringdiverse 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.

Learning Opportunities

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 orgeographic 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.

Trust becomes a key ingredient: participants must trust the process and the tool if they are to participate in a meaningful manner and enterprises must support open and transparent communications.

3. Build effective leadership teams

Changing an enterprise’s culture to embrace social tools is a significant undertaking that requires a concerted effort. A committed leadership team is essential, preferably starting with the CEO. Community level leaders and “idea managers” are necessary to establish and communicate clear goals, take ownership of the process and encourage wide participation. Good leaders act as role models and are highly engaged with the community; they are the glue that holds the team together. Most importantly, an effective leader will pursue the first two principles above by leading the efforts to design the social collaboration process, setting and reinforcing clear innovation-related goals, and building trust in the process by and for the community.

4. A well-planned implementation strategy is key to success

An enterprise often employs robust program management tools and processes when rolling out new business models, products, services or software.These tools and processes ensure that the implementation goes smoothly and is fully supported from beginning to end. These same processes should be applied for social-driven innovation efforts to ensure adequate levels of participation and idea generation. While typical program management might focus on status reporting, risk, and issue identification, social innovation program management should primarily focus on facilitating participation, collaboration, and goal attainment.

Creating and adhering to a time frame—for example, agreeing to a 90-day innovation sprint—is also important for good execution. Social collaboration fatigue can set in and participants will easily lose focus if no set time limit is in place.

A well-executed implementation strategy should periodically reassess and measure success towards meeting goals. Social program management is sorely needed if enterprises are serious about succeeding with including social paradigms in their innovation programs.

Social platforms, when designed correctly and managed well, can spur innovation and give companies an advantage in today’s highly competitive markets. The principles outlined above can provide a starting point for enterprises to build their own social business innovation roadmaps and begin the journey of continuous innovation.

Editor's Note: Read more from this month's focus on the future of collaboration

About the author

Rahul Mehta

Rahul Mehta is the founder and CEO of SapperOne Consulting Inc., a management consulting firm that specializes in business transformation consulting. He has more than 17 years of experience advising clients on how to plan, design and implement business transformation initiatives.

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