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Most business applications presuppose a process that needs to run efficiently and smoothly – and are devised to deliver on just those terms. But, in today’s digital economy, it is often not just efficient processes, but innovation – and delivering the next big idea – that is just as important for a company to keep up or stay ahead.
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How, then, does delivering on this new imperative work itself into the workplace? In simple terms, it means a growing number of companies today look to:
- Develop new approaches, services and products (and to fail fast);
- Source new skills and engage employees in the latest challenges;
- Get small, innovative projects up and running rapidly;
- Fully capture any resulting intellectual property.
Welcome to the digital workspace
There is plenty to unpack here. It is an area analyst group Gartner marked as undergoing dramatic change in the workspace in 2017, and which will only speed up from here, even if it also admits “digital dexterity” still has a long way to go, with only a few corporates taking it seriously thus far.
“Organisations want better collaboration, better analytics capabilities, and they want to be agile,” says Matt Cain, a vice-president at Gartner. “While this is being enabled to an extent by leading software-as-a-service offerings like Microsoft 365 or G Suite or Workday, it’s well worth looking at the emerging tools, too – do they point the way ahead?”
Cain highlights how knowledge-sharing, for one, is being enabled in digital terms to “democratise innovation by deploying platforms that bring all employees into the ideation and innovation” arena.
“A tool like Solverboard is aiming at ideation and ideas management, while another, Talking Circles, is attempting to solve one of the big problems in business – who else in an organisation has the expertise to support a particular project?”
How far along are we on this journey? There is plenty of road left to travel, says Cain. When Gartner surveys its user community of large, innovation-minded corporates, about one in seven are pushing digital dexterity already, with another third showing interest in it.
But the conditions are also there for change to come through quickly: business models are changing, and the way that work gets done in business today is transforming wherever you look. In addition to this, and once you stir in a growing awareness and understanding of behavioural science and the changed way that many companies relate to their workers and define their missions, it becomes hard not to envision a shift in this direction.
“The other point is that these tools are in the cloud and being improved constantly, so you get that continuous drip of change,” says Cain. “Plus it’s backed up by other shifts, like the way continuous learning is being enabled and embraced.”
Solving the innovation challenge
Charlie Widdows is a co-founder of Solverboard, one of the platforms mentioned by Cain.
Launched in 2015, Solverboard today takes aim at plugging the innovation gap in corporates – where internal silos still abound – as well as in consultancies and creative agencies that are smaller and agile but often struggle to innovate for themselves.
“We’ve learned plenty along the way,” says Widdows. “We started out with a business proposition that appealed to artisan and kitchen-table businesses, but corporates like Unilever and GE were soon interested in our open-innovation model and these kinds of corporates have helped Solverboard to become what it is now.”
For bigger corporates, the challenge of innovation and tapping into knowledge and expertise is to apply a model that really works within an existing culture and systems. How, for example, do you get the fewest really high-quality projects out of the most people?
“For GE, that was one key question,” says Widdows. “It wanted a way to set challenges and to democratise innovation that really worked for the business and took care of any questions around intellectual property at the same time. There was also an imperative to break out of organisational silos and open things up.”
How Solverboard is being used
So how is Solverboard being used in practice now? Broadly in three ways, says Widdows: for idea management, crowdsourced ideas, and as an employee engagement tool.
“The platform delivers all of these advantages. If you are brave enough as an organisation to ask for help to make you better, the net benefit can be brilliant ideas and delivering certain innovations faster than you otherwise would.”
Widdows says it works best when an innovation strand is part of a wider change programme – where clients are already halfway there with this work and have challenges to solve. “In other words, we can see it works best when our clients don’t just want to talk, but want action.”
Crowdsourced innovation: Team Sky
For a smaller consultancy, one typical approach is that taken by a healthcare practice in London that identified 12 challenges the business faced and has put those challenges on the platform to be tackled collectively. About 50 individuals are engaged and active on the platform, sharing and showcasing ideas that will quickly drive these development projects.
But it’s at the other end of the scale that Solverboard’s future business model looks most promising.
Simon Jones is currently high-performance director for Cycling Australia, but until early 2017 was head of innovation for the well-known highly successful British professional cycling outfit Team Sky, which has become a byword for innovation on the back of its dramatic rise to success, particularly in the Tour de France.
Reflecting on his time with Team Sky, Jones says that, for him, innovation equates to continuous improvement.
“That’s really the core of it: what are the things that we currently do that we can improve on? Team Sky also does a lot of horizon scanning to understand what broader opportunities are from new technology or approaches, and go through a process of filtering to work out which ones are applicable.”
But while the innovation imperative is embedded in the culture at Team Sky, and many incremental improvements will be sourced from the needs of the team working on the ground, Jones also launched a project with the marketing team to reach out to fans and crowdsource new ideas.
“Team Sky is known for marginal gains and innovation, so turning that innovation imperative on the fanbase and engaging with them made a lot of sense.”
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Using Solverboard, Team Sky set up a fan-engagement challenge to run for 12 months as a proof of concept – and it soon delivered, generating 300-plus suggestions from fans in a short timeframe, of which about a third were worth investigating and three came through as “winners” to be taken up as projects.
Team Sky is currently exploring the winning projects – including a fan-generated content hub that’s managed by Team Sky but primarily relies on users for its content and conversation.
Phase two of this engagement work isn’t signed off yet, and Jones himself has moved on from Team Sky, but Widdows says more technical challenges are in the pipeline, designed to find innovative fans that could in theory join a virtual innovation and ideation team.
“The detail is still being finalised, but the reward for involvement could be financial or be built around the opportunity to actualise something, with some sort of profit share element. With projects like this, you need to get the levers right and offer something of value – that’s true of internal innovation projects, too, of course. Individuals will always respond well to being engaged with and listened to – and it’s a culture shift that many companies are ready to embrace.”
Innovation, knowledge-sharing, intellectual property
Another recent example of how knowledge-sharing can drive projects and innovation in a business comes from the automobile glass repair company Carglass France, which, as Computer Weekly revealed recently, is using knowledge-sharing technology to distribute expertise among 3,000 employees.
The French unit of Belron International successfully adopted Talking Circles in 2017, which is a collaboration tool that facilitates creative and purposeful knowledge-sharing opportunities between co-workers in real time. In the process, Carglass says it instantly broadened its pool of available knowledge, with more than 100 skill requests being placed against 200-plus unique skills being offered within two weeks of the platform going live.
But there are also other opportunities in this space, that sit alongside these exploratory knowledge-and-expertise-for-innovation projects explored so far – specifically the chance to bring knowledge-sharing to bear on established projects to cement a company’s residual value and intellectual property.
Dom Moorhouse is a serial entrepreneur who sold a consultancy business in 2008 to BT after a five-year build programme. Recently, he’s launched a collaboration tool called Method Grid in a public beta. It is focused on team-based delivery to ensure individuals in an organisation are working to a common standard by working off a continuously improving, centralised point of reference.
“It fills a fairly new space,” says Moorhouse. “It does not compete directly against project management or communication tools, like Basecamp and Yammer. Rather, it is a platform on which companies can easily design and build service methodology and internal operating procedures.
Think of it more as a dynamic – constantly updated – operating manual that joins up a whole firm or a team in standard and repeatable practices. Method Grid also really enables knowledge-based collaboration in larger teams or companies, where every knowledge artefact – we call these “elements” – can be tagged with the experts in the team.
Fast for Footdown
One company already putting Method Grid to work is Footdown, a software services company that helps organisations improve performance.
“We are leaders in organisational sense-making,” says head of consultancy Matt Jenkins. “Through our intelligence platform we enable leaders all over the world to improve performance, be it individual, team or organisational.”
Method Grid is clearly a fit for Footdown and its whole ethos, but Jenkins says the speed and simplicity of its application to Footdown’s internal knowledge-sharing practices has been eye-opening.
“It has solved a problem for us – and fast. We are relatively small as a consultancy and software house, but our product and processes had got to the stage where we risked losing information or seeing projects stall.
“Yes, you can aggregate information and key documents on platforms like [Microsoft] Sharepoint, but mapping Method Grid to our existing body of work had made it easy to create a single destination internally – that’s a point of truth and that enables collaboration.”
Seven steps to empowering individuals and embracing innovation
- Work is no longer a place.
- Manage the outcome, not the process.
- The digital workplace should be a pleasure to use.
- Learning is good for the individual and the company.
- Everything should be geared to helping individuals do the work that matters.
- Working relationships require mutual understanding.
- Collaboration only works with an agreed way of working.
In a single weekend, Footdown was able to build out six “grids” of knowledge that are effective masterfiles internally and potentially have an application for new and existing clients.
“We are all about high performance, so this is exciting for us on several levels. It helps us internally and it has the potential for wider use, helping others,” says Jenkins.
“There may be tools out there that work similarly, but from a methodology perspective I haven’t found anything. My previous company was in e-commerce, with 100 staff, and had similar problems that Method Grid goes some way to addressing.”
What Jenkins says is particularly important, alongside the knowledge-sharing and culture shift, is to simultaneously be pinning down the value in the business.
“You are documenting the business and delivering tools for sales pipelines, long-term value creation and more,” he says. “I love that about it. It means the IP is in-house and documented and secure – and can be passed on if and when someone moves on. That’s a big risk in consultancies – you need that footprint left behind.”