This is a chapter from the book Crowdsourced Innovation - Revolutionizing Open Innovation with Crowdsourcing by Catharina Van Delden. Re-published with permission.

From an outside perspective, innovation and idea management within a company seems like one of the most exciting jobs possible – determining the future of a company by analyzing trends and anticipating market developments.

The reality we have faced over the past years, however, is mostly disenchanting. We argue for change in internal idea management, using the methods of Crowdsourced Innovation.


The Suggestion Box

Employee suggestion systems (often still in the form of a conventional letter box) tend to be platforms where employees are submitting ideas to get extra cash rather than generating innovative ideas and creative concepts. Especially short-tenured employees such as interns and university graduates often use these systems to improve their salary.

Managers or senior leaders, however, do not consider these ideas due to the limited experience of their originators.

Even worse, the employee suggestion box is quite frequently used as a means to express complaints rather than to submit innovative ideas and creative solutions. These systems typically require the employee to submit a suggestion or idea to a direct superior or a dedicated team that evaluates it initially before redirecting it to a relevant division in the company. After a positive second evaluation, the employee who first posted the suggestion is rewarded with a monetary incentive or non-cash prizes like free coffee machines or other consumer products.

The level of the incentive also depends on the evaluation of a senior manager and includes elements such as potential company savings or the degree to which an idea can be implemented.

This kind of system is often very time consuming for all parties involved and is perceived as just another annoying task – especially the people evaluating the ideas feel pressured to cast decisions on topics that do not always fall in their field of expertise.

In sum, these systems fail to trigger creativity or ideas in a forward-thinking manner, as they mostly focus on incrementally improving already existing products or systems.


From Suggestion to Innovation

As a consequence, many companies have established more sophisticated innovation processes to solve the aforementioned problems, tackle trends proactively, and develop new business opportunities.

Innovation teams are aiming to create disruptive new offerings and business models. They often start by analyzing market and industry trends and by identifying niches for new offerings. After assembling such an initial framework, they conduct innovation and idea workshops to evaluate early ideas and to allocate development budgets for these projects. However, critical stakeholders or employees outside the innovation team – let alone external users and customers – are often not included in this process until the idea is ready to be tested before the launch.

The described innovation processes limit many companies, especially those with large workforces. They miss out on a major source for innovation: the crowd from within. Many employees want to be included and want to help shape their company, they want their suggestions and ideas to be heard and they want to be taken seriously. Businesses should crowdsource within their own walls.

Internal Crowdsourcing, however, can only be successful in an environment where employees are consistently encouraged to come up with innovative ideas and are part of the innovation process.

The most important characteristic of such a system is true collaboration: posted suggestions and ideas have to be made transparent and visible to all employees allowing them to comment and vote – independent of an employee’s role or level of responsibility.

Furthermore, the innovation team should not only ask for general ideas and suggestions, but also propose real innovation challenges, which can be solved collaboratively. Those can be formed into a Stage Gate process with all stages being open to the employees for discussion.

In this context, it is recommended to actively display the prevailing thought processes and the current state of research in order to set a transparent and fair “playground” for all participants. Doing so proves that the process is important for the company and that employee input is absolutely relevant for the future of the business. One way to share this information is by integrating an innovation blog into the internal Crowdsourced Innovation system.

Suggestions and ideas should be displayed anonymously so that a participants’ title or seniority does not influence how his or her contributions are discussed, improved, or evaluated. Employees are likely to post more daring ideas knowing that their identity or status in the company is not relevant in the corresponding discussion. Comments on original posts, however, should be attributed to a person to ensure a professional conversational tone.

Abhi Ingle, Vice President of Ecosystem and Innovation at AT&T, explains why his company’s internal Crowdsourcing system has been so successful:

“This is a program that gets people excited. Normally, front-line employees could never get an audience with executive leadership, but with the innovation pipeline it’s a regular occurrence.”

Being open to all employees is not only an important criterion for comment boards, it is also true for the evaluation process. It is key that ideas are judged through a true peer-to-peer voting system. Once the crowd has recognized an idea worth pursuing, it can still be assessed via a jury-based system that uses specific evaluation criteria like development costs or strategic fit.

In order to remove the pressure of making individual decisions – sometimes outside the evaluator’s expertise – only ideas pre-evaluated by the crowd will be included in such a system. The evaluations and ratings can be displayed in an automated portfolio that considers both the input of the crowd as well as the one of the jury to support the decision-making process.

Finally, gamification elements and re-engagement mechanisms are key in maintaining a vibrant and lively community that returns to the platform regularly to contribute specific knowledge. Gamification can be achieved through a point system or game-like elements while maintaining an adequate level of professionalism. Re-engagement mechanisms are usually based on social reinforcement, e.g. notifications that alert employees regarding their colleagues’ activities and call for support.

In a nutshell, internal Crowdsourcing systems should take the form of communities that tackle innovation questions together rather than physical or virtual boxes collecting frustration and criticism.

To take internal Crowdsourcing to the next level, elements of the internal innovation communities need to be combined with external innovation efforts that engage customers and users.


Case Study: Best Practice Sharing at IABG

The Industrieanlagen-Betriebsgesellschaft (IABG) is one of the leading companies in Europe for industry analysis and testing services. IABG serves customers in the business segments automotive, infocom, mobility, energy & environment, aerospace and defense & security.

Within the defense & security division, IABG uses a collaborative approach to share best practices. The innovation community tool connects IABG employees to discuss innovative ideas, client needs and suggestions for new services and customer benefits. Specifically, in a first step, pain points of the customers are defined and discussed.

This serves as a starting point to generate ideas for innovative product and service concepts that solve these issues. Ideas are continuously discussed and developed further in the community of employees, who come from various departments and levels of hierarchy.

When IABG implemented this platform, it was of utmost importance to involve a large group of employees in a holistic innovation process – starting with identifying user needs, continuing with creative idea generation processes, and resulting in the selection of the most promising suggestions. Ultimately, these ideas are translated into product and service concepts that can be implemented.