walking through a large pipe with a light ahead
PHOTO: Wil Stewart

There are multiple approaches companies can take with innovation. Some invest huge sums into research and product development, some spend less but have highly focused innovation teams. Others look to surface innovation from across their workforce through open innovation.

Whatever your approach, enterprise social network (ESN) tools such as Yammer and Workplace by Facebook and collaboration platforms such as Igloo are gaining a foothold as highly useful innovation tools. A number of specialist open innovation tools are also available that combine social with innovation management. 

Once you have created your innovation groups, here are some ways to align them with core innovation phases.

The Discovery Phase

This is the blank canvas that you start with, where opportunities form. Discovery can be focused around specific needs, trends and issues or it can be completely spontaneous — starting from a sudden spark of inspiration. ESNs shine here as a way to facilitate both spontaneous and coveted innovation.

Trend Scouting

When a new trend emerges it's sometimes difficult to say if it's a threat or an opportunity. Why not ask the workforce what they think about it? According to analysis of questions in ESN conversations by SWOOP, when you ask a question, a thread is 2.5 longer than when you don't. And at the discovery phase, it's all about starting a conversation. Asking questions around trends, about the future, about a specific business need, can really help spark innovation. You may not get ideas (yet), but you will start to explore opportunities and distill broad areas into something a little more tangible.

Posting Snapshots

A snapshot is a moment captured and shared. It can be a picture of something that inspired you, or something you have worked on. It can be an experience told as a story: how did it make you feel? 

These snapshots can help fuel creativity. People interpret them in different ways and connect them with completely unrelated things. This opens up the potential for innovation far more than if you kept it to yourself. You can facilitate accidental discoveries if you increase the potential for people to connect over something. I've heard too many stories of when people run in to each other or connect over an object that sparks an idea or new thinking. Let's make this happen digitally as well as in physical environments.

Use Bots to Start Conversations

We're a ways off from bots actually coming up with ideas, but they are proving excellent at harvesting content and sharing it. If you're particularly interested in trends, bots can share with us not just what people are talking about internally, but what trends may be relevant to your business. Sometimes just having a prompt can inspire thought. Then the power of the human mind comes into its own as people start to connect the initial thought with all of the other random things they have lurking in their heads. 

Related Article: What Innovation Software Is Right for You?

Ideation Phase

Whether ideation follows discovery, or you start here, social collaboration tools are becoming an instrumental part of co-creation and open innovation. Opening up ideation, from a few teams to the entire organization, is not just a way of getting more ideas, it's a way of getting better ideas. Targeting the sheer volume of ideas is one method, but if you focus ideation more specifically, the input from the workforce will help shape ideas too. And getting one brilliant idea is far more valuable than 10 so-so ideas, or 50 impractical ideas. 

Here's how ESNs can help:

Crowd Sourcing

Crowd-sourced idea platforms are simple yet, if deployed with a decent effort on engagement, can be very effective in surfacing suggestions from the workforce. These tend to benefit larger organizations, where the focus is on capturing ideas from areas outside of a specific innovation program. Crowd-sourcing in this way will largely generate suggestions for improvement, based on experiences and frustrations of the workforce, rather than invention. Focusing on improvements rather than invention also has proven benefits, such as Swiss Post who adopted QMarkets to promote, capture and evaluate improvement suggestions. This led to significant cost savings derived from the visibility of ideas.

Innovation Campaigns

Designing an innovation campaign to be run on your ESN is a proven technique to engage with the workforce. This can be done on an ESN platform alone, although adding specialist crowd innovation tools can really make a difference.

When asking for ideas, a lack of clarity on what you're looking for and why you're doing it often results in poor engagement and largely impractical suggestions. By creating a campaign with a clear strategy that really connects employees to the problem or the issue at the heart of it, you'll be in good shape for generating decent ideas. You also need to consider how you'll engage with the workforce on this: what will pull them in to start with? Posting thought-provoking questions is one technique — shaping ideation by asking a specific question such as "We need to influence government policy. What success have we had in line with this policy, and how can we apply it to 'example' problem?" This invites people to respond rather than waiting for them to submit ideas.

A campaign also benefits from fixed timeslot events, such as jams or hackathons. Get people to book in the time and start a conversation.

Related Article: Are You Missing Out on Good Ideas in Your Business?

Creative Thinking Sessions

Innovation can often come as a result of a call for help, but the way you ask for help can really inspire creative thinking. Introduce ideation techniques like touchpoints by asking people for their experience with a company they enjoyed, unpacking these experiences into individual interactions. What stood out? What else drew them in other than the product? It could have been the packaging, the music played in a cafe, the mobile app experience. You can re-build these into any relevant process that you offer, identifying opportunities for improvement and even piggybacking off the experiences people shared.

Other tactics can include running scenario planning and forecasting sessions. Raise some trends and start a conversation about where these can go, and what your responses can be — this is a great way to step out of the cubicle and think about the future. Introduce concepts and ask how your organization can use them, such as peer-to-peer business, low carbon economy, blockchain, the sky's the limit. Focusing discussions on seemingly distant topics often makes it easier to discuss and explore, as we are not clouded by our current work focus and traditional incremental thinking. 

These can all be run on ESNs as a focused event that not only engages people through purpose and interest, but also can produce inspiring outcomes.

Related Article: Why So Many Large Companies Stink at Innovation

Evaluation Phase

As an alternative to assigning assessment criteria to ideas, you can use ESNs as an organic evaluation tool. The good ideas will create more noise. The not-so-good ideas will either be further developed to a point where they are more worthwhile, or they will drop off the radar.

Another growing area is the adoption of plug-ins for ESNs that help source and channel innovation. Severn Trent Water in the UK sources ideas using Yammer and Sideways 6 to help it structure and evaluate ideas. The company has turned 190 submitted ideas into three genuine innovations.

You can easily create polls to vote on ideas submitted within your innovation groups. While this approach is fine, it doesn't truly evaluate ideas. Rather, consider running mini-campaigns around submitted ideas, or at least those considered viable. Ask for specific input on them: what do people love about them? What could be improved? Ask the idea creator to promote them, or get someone to promote it on their behalf, perhaps via a pitching session. Generating exposure and conversations around the ideas rather than just numbers of votes will shape them, moving them further along the innovation process ladder.

This step also helps us make massive progress in piloting ideas. You've already proven them for robustness within the workforce, and also potentially identified areas where you can test them. When people start asking if they can help, you've got  a good sign you're on to something.

Enterprise Social Networks: Your Gateway to Innovation

Enterprise social networks are a valuable tool for innovation, as companies such as British Gas, Severn Trent Water and Walmart have proven. But it's not just the behemoths who benefit. Smaller organizations and discreet innovation groups reap just as much value from an ESN. They provide two key elements: first, a home for conversations and a place for innovation. And second, a means of speeding up our interactions — a responsive and proactive innovation lab. 

Social collaboration tools increase our chances of spontaneous innovation and help improve the ideation process. They allow this to happen instantly. But make no mistake: this won't occur spontaneously. You need to manage open innovation just as you do all communities. Set a clear purpose, provide an environment for content creation and sharing, focused activities, leaders that listen, and establish an engaged audience. Get these right and innovation will surely flow.