A crowd inside

When you read the original (and, in my opinion, still the best) definition of crowdsourcing proposed by Jeff Howe in 2006–“the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call”—you get an impression that crowdsourcing is always something that is external to an organization.

Indeed, the focus of public attention has traditionally been on external crowdsourcing campaigns, such as NASA’s open innovation contracts or the contest launched by BP in the wake of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hidden from the spotlight—and almost completely ignored by the academics and business writers–is so-called internal crowdsourcing, crowdsourcing conducted within the legal boundaries of an organization that harnesses the “collective wisdom” of the organization’s own employees. Yet a growing body of business cases shows that organizations have begun successfully using “inside” crowds to solve technical and business problems (“top-down” crowdsourcing), generate new product and service ideas (“bottom-up” crowdsourcing) or forecast internal and external outcomes and trends (prediction markets).

A recent article in MIT SMR is a testament that business periodicals have finally started paying attention to internal crowdsourcing too. A joint team of academics and business executives have summarized the results of a four-year research project that studied how organizations in different industries were using internal crowdsourcing. Here, I’d like to offer some comments, based on my own experience in running internal crowdsourcing campaigns, on the authors’ observations and practical recommendations.

First of all, I completely agree with the authors that running internal crowdsourcing campaigns requires well-defined process and carefully chosen technological platform; it’s also critical to establish a flexible system of incentives, which rewards not only submitters of “good” ideas, but also employees who contributed to the ultimate success of the campaign by commenting on and refining other people’s ideas. I also fully support the authors’ emphasis on the importance of transparency with regards to the results of the completed crowdsourcing campaign and, especially, on dealing with employees whose ideas/solutions had not been selected for further development.

I, however, don’t share the authors’ tacit assertion that running “competitive” campaigns (that is, the ones with selected “winners”) hurts collaboration and, therefore, is intrinsically counterproductive. In my experience, the reward system should first and foremost reflect the existing organizational culture. For instance, rewarding only a few top individual performers sits quite well with the cultural values of many U.S. companies. In contrast, European managers often cringe at the “winner takes all” (or, as they call it, “American”) approach; they prefer to award teams instead of individuals and spread rewards among larger number of the participants.

Nor do I agree with the authors’ claim that it’s universally beneficial when submitters of the best ideas are placed in charge of their implementation—in part, as a reward for submitting them in the first place. Proposing ideas or solutions and implementing them often require different sets of skills–and not every individual possesses all of them. The decision on who will be implementing a selected proposal should be made solely based on strategic business considerations, and not dictated by the (often arbitrary) rules of the reward and recognition system.

I’d also question the authors’ recommendation to preferentially use technological platforms that facilitate shared development of solutions; I’m afraid that they’re confusing crowdsourcing with brainstorming. I’ve covered this topic in the past and will only mention here that crowdsourcing (whether internal or external) can only realize its full potential when the participants are capable of providing their input independently of each other. In this case, a crowdsourcing campaign may result in a completely unexpected, even unorthodox, solution. I’ve nothing against brainstorming—it’s a powerful problem-solving tool—but one has to remember that it almost always ends up with a consensus solution—or, worse, a solution pushed forward by a vocal minority.

The authors are absolutely right when they point out that internal crowdsourcing brings value to organizations well above the intellectual input it produces. (I was making similar point recently.) When asking employees to submit ideas and solutions, the senior management sends a message that it values their views and opinions and considers them equal partners in fulfilling organizational objectives.

I was thus surprised with the authors’ recommendation to run internal crowdsourcing campaigns while keeping anonymity of the participants. The authors base this recommendation on the notion that “[p]roviding a psychologically safe environment leads to greater employee participation and collaboration, resulting in more effective innovations.” They further argue that by hiding their organizational identity, employees will feel safer when making their contributions.

Although I fully agree (and wrote about this before) that a psychologically safe environment is crucial for innovation, the proposed anonymity defies the very objective of running internal crowdsourcing campaigns: giving the employees the sense of participation, engagement and ownership of the organization’s future. Besides, if employees feel unsafe to openly share their views with the rest of the organization, this organization has a problem, a problem that can’t be solved by just hiding someone’s identity.

The last point of disagreement has to do with the authors’ complaint that organizations often run internal crowdsourcing campaigns focused on short-term improvements. The authors believe that, quite to the contrary, organizations should “encourage employees to keep their focus on long-term opportunities.”

The authors appear to simply misinterpret what crowdsourcing is. Crowdsourcing is, first and foremost, an innovation tool—and, as such, it can be applied to a wide variety of business objectives. Some of these objectives are of short-term nature while others do represent long-term opportunities; however, all of them must be subordinated to a larger innovation strategy. (I don’t want to go too deep here, but mentioning such important concepts as 3-Horizon Model of Innovation and Integrative Innovation Management would be very relevant in this context.) Depending on a particular part of the overall innovation strategy, an appropriate innovation tool needs to be selected. Not the other way around.

p.s. You can read the latest issue of my monthly newsletter on crowdsourcing here: http://mailchi.mp/a15981c4278a/a-flash-of-wisdom-the-power-of-internal-crowds. To subscribe to the newsletter, go to http://eepurl.com/cE40az.

Image was provided by Tatiana Ivanov

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The wisdom of crowds in a flash

(This post has originally appeared on Edge of Innovation)

There are two important rules of running a successful crowdsourcing campaign. First, a complex problem or a task should be divided into a set of smaller, more manageable pieces; each of them could then be offered to a crowd, either sequentially or in parallel. Second, a problem statement presented to a crowd must define in advance all the requirements for a successful solution, along with specific criteria by which this solution will be selected.

When correctly applied, these rules make crowdsourcing a powerful tool capable of bringing innovative solutions to technical and business problems (“top-down” crowdsourcing) or generating new product or service ideas (“bottom-up” crowdsourcing).

Unfortunately, many business objectives require accomplishing complex, open-ended tasks that can’t be broken into smaller parts; these tasks may also involve re-assessment and change in the course of implementation. Besides, working on these tasks usually demands involvement of multiple interacting workers, something that crowdsourcing in its “pure” form is badly suited for.

A team of computer and management scientists at Stanford University have attempted to overcome these limitations of traditional crowdsourcing by introducing a concept of a “flash organization,” a virtual and temporary entity created with a sole purpose of executing a project.

Flash organizations combine elements of traditional crowdsourcing and classical organizational hierarchy. Like traditional crowdsourcing, the workforce in flash organizations is completely virtual and assembled on-demand from online labor markets (such as Upwork). At the same time, these workers are assembled in an organizational structure, and this structure could be promptly modified to accommodate new tasks. Supporting the model software platform allows the execution of all “normal” business operations: from the creation of an organization and hiring workers to task-tracking and communication within the group. It also includes a tool allowing individual workers to request a new task or a role—or change the whole organizational structure, if needed.

The Stanford team has tested the concept on three projects: creating an app helping EMS technicians send advance medical reports on their ways to the hospital, building a web application to administer client workshops and designing and manufacturing of a storytelling card game.

Although some doubts were raised about the quality of work performed by the flash organizations in the above-mentioned field trials, the potential applications of the model could be enormous. Flash organizations essentially represent a new crowdsourcing approach that enables anyone with an internet connection to create an entire organization from a paid crowdsourcing marketplace and use this organization to pursue complex, open-ended goals.

One could also consider using elements of the flash organization model to improve traditional crowdsourcing. For example, by hiring people with complementary expertise and skills and letting them interact, it might be possible to transform a set of separate crowdsourcing campaigns dealing with related problems into a unified R&D project.

The major obstacle to realizing this vision today is the way flash organizations hire workers. The hiring process relies on the approach that has long been used to assemble disaster response teams or the Hollywood movie production crews. People in such groups might not even know each other, but because they are familiar with each other’s roles, they act cooperatively based on predefined organizational hierarchy and division of labor. Once the goal of the project has been set, the project leader goes on Upwork (or a similar online labor marketplace) and invites people with profiles fitting the desired organizational structure. What makes this possible is the fact that for the well-defined jobs, such as app or web design, individual Upwork profiles provide sufficient information about professional credentials of their owners.

But this is not the case with traditional crowdsourcing. To begin with, it is extremely difficult to define in advance which particular skill, expertise of life experience would be required to come up with a solution to a complex technical or business problem; profile information in the most popular freelance marketplaces would be mostly irrelevant for this purpose. Complicating the matter are academic studies showing that a solver’s likelihood of solving a problem during a crowdsourcing campaign increases with the distance between the solver’s own field of technical expertise and the problem’s domain. How could one define the “adjacent” expertise crucial to solving a particular problem?

Improvements to the flash organization model—most likely involving AI algorithms—will therefore be needed to make flash organizations a mainstream approach to executing crowd-based business projects. 

p.s. You can read the latest issue of my monthly newsletter on crowdsourcing here: http://mailchi.mp/a15981c4278a/a-flash-of-wisdom-the-power-of-internal-crowds. To subscribe to the newsletter, go to http://eepurl.com/cE40az.

Image Credit: http://hci.stanford.edu/publications/2017/flashorgs/flash-orgs-chi-2017.pdf

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The strength that comes from within

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                    This post has originally appeared on the Cultivate Labs Blog 

As crowdsourcing becomes more widely adopted as a corporate innovation tool, the spotlight is on external crowdsourcing: engaging outside stakeholders such as experts, customers, and the general public to understand market demands and to collaborate on new product and service development.

At the same time, organizations have recognized the innovative power of one more important constituency: their own employees. A growing body of business cases shows how the collective wisdom of internal “crowds” is being successfully used–in a process known as internal crowdsourcing–to collect new product and service ideas, to solve technical and business problems and to forecast internal and external outcomes and trends 

There are at least five important benefits that internal crowdsourcing can bring to any organization, in addition to innovation and forecasting:

  1. Cross-Communication in Large Organizations

Internal crowdsourcing provides a communication platform between different corporate units that in many organizations often have no institutional space to discuss strategic issues. By providing such a platform, internal crowdsourcing increases the efficiency of the decision-making process and reduces the need for face-to-face meetings.

  1. Fostering Collaboration

Internal crowdsourcing helps foster the very culture of collaboration, bringing together corporate units that are traditionally involved in the innovation process (R&D and Marketing) with those that are not (Business Development, Finance, Legal, HR). Much has been said about the notorious “NIH (Not Invented Here) Syndrome.” However, it’s important to remember that the NIH Syndrome manifests not only as a rejection of external knowledge and expertise, but also as resistance to intra-company collaboration, as individual units are often reluctant to share their findings with others. By breaking internal silos and promoting intra-company collaboration, internal crowdsourcing creates a systemic acceptance and active practice of continuous ideation and forecasting and reduce the fear of failure.

  1. Accelerating the Corporate R&D Cycle

Internal crowdsourcing can be used to find solutions to problems that individual units have failed to solve on their own. Such problem-solving could be especially productive in multinational corporations with numerous units spread over geographic and time zones. People in different units, often brought together as a result of M&A, rarely communicate with each other and almost never meet face-to-face. Yet, often one unit may possess specific knowledge that is desperately needed—and can be immediately implemented–in another. Connecting such “dots” (or collecting “low-hanging fruits,” one might say) through internal crowdsourcing could result in significant savings of time and money for internal R&D.

  1. Creating a Base of Support for External Innovation

Internal crowdsourcing provides intellectual and operational support for the organization’s external innovation programs. Initially, it helps identify and formulate problems whose solution would require external sources of knowledge and expertise. Later, it may facilitate testing and implementing of incoming external ideas and solutions.

  1. Identifying an Organization’s True Thought Leaders

Internal crowdsourcing helps identify the organization’s emerging thought leaders, who–especially in junior positions and in geographically remote units–often remain unnoticed to the corporate leaders. Because of its intrinsically democratic nature, internal crowdsourcing provides voice to every employee regardless of their rank and location in the company. Besides, the very format of online communication is especially attractive to Millennials who play an increasingly important role in the global marketplace.

When developing a viable corporate innovation strategy, organizations must create a balanced portfolio of internal and external innovation programs. Yet corporate innovation leaders should always remember that the full potential of any innovation program can only be realized by the concerted effort of properly connected people within organizations. Or, putting this differently, the power of corporate innovation comes from the strength within.

p.s. You can read the latest issue of my monthly newsletter on crowdsourcing here: http://mailchi.mp/324919f20cae/gaining-steam-overcoming-resistance. To subscribe to the newsletter, go to http://eepurl.com/cE40az.

The image credit: https://pixabay.com/en/photo-montage-faces-photo-album-1768409/

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One more time about “culture of innovation”

My previous post, “The “culture of innovation:” misnomer, oxymoron, myth or chimera?”, has caused a lively discussion in a number of LinkedIn groups. Approximately half of the commenters were sympathetic to my claim that the very term “culture of innovation” is more a distraction than an enabler in attempts to promote corporate innovation. The other half adhered to the point of view that the “cultural” aspect plays a central role in the organizational ability (or inability) to innovate.

I’m very grateful to everyone who took the time to participate in the discussion. In this follow-up piece, I’d like to clarify and refine my position on the topic in response to the received feedback.

First of all, let me clearly state that by no means do I deny the importance of the cultural aspect of business operations. People are people, and the way they feel and behave does affect the manner they conduct business transactions. My specific objection is to the expansive usage of the word “culture” in the context of innovation.

Have you ever heard about a modern-day organization trying to establish a “culture of accounting”? No; organizations simply introduce solid accounting practices. Have you ever heard about an organization trying to establish a “culture of quality”? No; organizations adopt the Six Sigma methodology instead. Have you ever heard about “culture of sales”, “culture of marketing” or “culture of project management”? Nope. It’s only innovation that, in the mind of many, requires a “culture” to exist. Why?

The reason—and I wrote about it before—is that we still don’t consider innovation a normal corporate process, on par with manufacturing, sales, marketing or talent management. We’re still unsure what innovation is—a surprisingly large number of organizations even don’t have a working definition of what innovation means for them—and routinely equate it with occasional “idea generation” campaigns. We appoint Chief Innovation Officers, but give them neither line authority nor fixed budget (or a budget that can be promptly taken away in case of “emergency”). We don’t understands the difference between incremental, “adjacent” and radical innovation (a.k.a. the 3-Horizon Model of Innovation) and unfamiliar with the concept of Integrative Innovation Management. As a result, we believe that every innovation must be “disruptive,” while all other types of it are for losers.

This intellectual and organizational vacuum is being filled with endless talks about “culture of innovation,” which, when established (without explanation of what “established” means, either), will supposedly take care of the rest. This allows corporate leaders responsible for innovation to take a hand-off approach and claim instead that “in our organization, innovation is everyone’s job.”

That’s why I insist that instead of making hollow calls to “unleash creativity,” “fail fast and often” and “celebrate failure”—all usual suspects in “establishing” the “culture of innovation”–we begin designing and implementing specific corporate policies that would help innovation take roots in organizations. That’s why I insist that a real corporate innovation begins not with “culture,” but with structure and process. With structure and process in place—and after years of running multiple and repeated innovation programs, while communicating their results to the rest of the organization—hopefully, a habit of innovation will emerge. And if you want to call this habit culture, fine with me.

There is one more thing I’d like to emphasize strongly: the role of corporate leadership. Because nothing—and I want to repeat this, nothing—will happen in any organization aspiring to have real innovation without active personal involvement from the C-suite.

Let me illustrate this point with a story. A few years ago, a large multi-national company invited me to an opening ceremony to celebrate the launch of a major open innovation initiative in one of its leading R&D divisions. I was to represent a company that was providing an online platform and consulting services for the initiative.
Highlighting the importance of the occasion, the ceremony was attended by a very big R&D boss from corporate headquarters. In his pep talk, the boss (I’ll call him John) spoke about virtues of open innovation, about the importance of the new initiative and how everyone in this location had to try it. He customarily concluded his talk with: “Any questions?”

A young fellow in the crowd of scientists raised his hand. Apparently sensing an opportunity to impress the high-profile visitor, he said: “John, I’m so busy with my current projects. How can I find time to run an open innovation campaign and then go through a pile of external submissions, while running simultaneously multiple experiments?”

John looked at the young fellow for a few long seconds (too long, I thought) and responded: “Look, we’ve charged you with solving a problem that is important to the company and we want your project succeed. I personally don’t care how you do that. If running experiments is enough, fine. However, if you fail, we’ll ask you: what have you done—in addition to running your own experiments—to have this problem solved? And, please, don’t tell us then that you were too busy to go through a pile of external submissions.”

By the expression of the young fellow’s face—and by the silence that suddenly filled the room—I realized that John’s message got across. A culture of open innovation was just born in this R&D location.

Have a great summer everyone!

p.s. You can read the latest issue of my monthly newsletter on crowdsourcing here: http://mailchi.mp/324919f20cae/gaining-steam-overcoming-resistance. To subscribe to the newsletter, go to http://eepurl.com/cE40az.

Image created by Tatiana Ivanov

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The “culture of innovation:” misnomer, oxymoron, myth or chimera?

In the opening piece of the Summer 2017 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, Paul Michelman writes about diminishing importance of corporate culture in the age of networked enterprises. Obviously, not everyone agrees with Mr. Michelman, and the whole discussion just highlights our near-obsession with the “cultural” aspects of business operations.

Nowhere else has this phenomenon reached such an epic proportion as in our dealing with the proverbial “culture of innovation,” a subject whose popularity in business literature and social media can only be matched by the extreme fuzziness of its definition. However, in my opinion, the very term “culture of innovation” is a misnomer, if not an oxymoron.

No matter how you precisely define it, culture is about sharing: sharing perceptions, thoughts, beliefs and even behavior. But the implicit homogenization that the sharing tries to achieve is completely antithetical to innovation, which is about diversity. A growing body of evidence (summarized in a 2014 article in Scientific American) shows that socially diverse groups, that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, are more innovative than socially homogeneous groups. It is exactly a conflict of backgrounds and experiences, not their sharing, that makes innovation happen.

Why then is the myth of “culture of innovation” so sustainable? I suspect that the major reason is that the frequent—and often empty– talk about it allows corporate leaders to take a hands-off approach when it comes to developing innovation strategy and establishing innovation processes.

I was quite amused to see the data presented in a recent PWC’s report on innovation surveying 246 CEO’s from around the world. The captains of industry cited “existing organization culture” as one of the top three obstacles preventing their companies from being more innovative.

Think about that for a minute! Why would a CEO view an “organization culture” as something that is completely out of their control, like a natural disaster or act of war? Is it not their direct responsibility to design and implement policies fostering this culture?

Apparently not. In recent years, many CEOs have mastered the art of talking about innovation, delivering well-rounded answers to friendly questions in non-confrontational surveys and interviews. But a frighteningly large number of them still demonstrate a cloudy vision of the very fundamentals of the innovation process. Too many CEOs don’t consider overseeing innovation process as part of their jobs, proudly claiming instead that “in our company, innovation is everyone’s job.” That’s where a non-stop talk about the culture of innovation comes so handy.

Instead of chasing chimeras, our corporate leaders should start implementing specific corporate policies helping innovation take roots in their organizations. In particular, they may try two things:

  1. Making stock option grants, as opposed to cash bonuses and other monetary rewards, the principal incentive for engaging employees in innovation projects.

This proposal is based on a 2015 finding that companies offering stock options to non-executive employees were more innovative, and that the positive effect of stock options on innovation was more pronounced with longer-term grants.

  1. Placing employees involved in innovation projects on fixed-term employment contracts, as opposed to employment-at-will. Alternatively, the creation of tenure-like job arrangements for people involved in strategic innovation initiatives can be considered.

This proposal is taking cue from a 2001 study showing that labor laws making it more difficult to fire employees increase their participation in corporate innovation activities. The authors of the study argued that the lower threat of termination produced by stronger anti-dismissal laws decreased the “cost of failure” for employees to engage in potentially risky innovation projects.

Of course, there is no guarantee that either of these initiatives will work. But they are at least testable and, even more importantly, measurable–as opposed to the hollow calls on the employees “to take risks,” “fail fast and often” and “celebrate failure.”

Real corporate innovation begins with structure and process. And if you keep perfecting them, while communicating the results to the rest of your organization, then sooner or later, a habit of repeated innovation will emerge. You want to call this habit culture? Be my guest.

p.s. You can read the latest issue of my monthly newsletter on crowdsourcing here: http://mailchi.mp/324919f20cae/gaining-steam-overcoming-resistance. To subscribe to the newsletter, go to http://eepurl.com/cE40az.

Image created by Tatiana Ivanov

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From a Spark to raging fire. (How Liberty Global got its corporate innovation right.)

Virgin Media Dogpatch. Picture Conor McCabe Photography

(This post has originally appeared on Edge of Innovation)

So many companies struggle with their corporate innovation programs that it’s important to identify and celebrate “success stories,” as there still aren’t many cases of organizations that get corporate innovation right. One such successful organization is Liberty Global, the world’s largest international cable company, known for its brands like Virgin Media, VodafoneZiggo, Unitymedia and Telenet. In 2016, Liberty Global was ranked 88th on the Forbes list of the World’s Most Innovation Companies.

Central to the Liberty Global’s innovation success is its program called Spark. Originally launched in 2011 at (then) UPC Netherlands and re-structured in 2013, Spark is an initiative aimed at sourcing, refining and implementing ideas proposed by Liberty Global’s employees and partners.

One of the original founders of Spark was Roel de Vries, who now manages the program at the Liberty Global’s Corporate Office in Amsterdam. In the fall of 2015, Roel explained to me Spark’s objectives, described early victories and also some struggles the initiative went through right at the beginning. Recently, I spoke with Roel again and asked him about the progress he and his colleagues at Spark have achieved over the past 18 months. Joining the conversation was Elaine Bromell, Program Manager at Virgin Media Ireland, a Liberty Global subsidiary. Below is a written version of our conversation.

E.I.: Roel, I know that you keep a meticulous count of all metrics related to the program. Could you please give the latest update of what’s happening at Spark in terms of numbers?

R. de V.: As of today, the Spark platform is available to more than 30,000 Liberty Global employees in 14 countries. Overall, more than 15,000 ideas have been generated, of which over 1,100 have been implemented; the total Return on Investment (ROI) stemming from the realization of these ideas is more than €10 million. But more importantly, over the past year or two, we’ve become much better at helping the Spark participants refine their ideas, make them look more attractive when presented to the company’s senior management. In turn, this led to the higher rate of idea adoptions and their subsequent implementations.

E.B.: Interestingly, we also spotted a feedback-loop effect of sorts: as the number of adopted and implemented ideas increased, so did the quality of submitted ideas. Certainly, the employees participating in Spark have realized that their efforts, which actually come atop their daily activities, are being noticed and appreciated by the company’s leadership.

E.I.: Roel, when we spoke last time, you told me that when originally launched in 2011, Spark was essentially no more than electronic suggestion box. The problem with this arrangement was that the majority of submitted ideas were of little practical value. They weren’t aligned with the company’s overall strategy. You then re-structured the program, in 2013, and began running it with the “end in mind’, that is, with aligning the idea flow to strategy. So now, while still running idea campaigns that don’t address specific questions (“always-open” campaigns), you pay more attention to so-called focused campaigns, campaigns that target a specific business or technical question. Are focused campaigns more successful than “always-open” campaigns?

R. de V.: Yes, they are. Asking a specific question sets the parameters for the ideas that people will generate. It gives them structure around the types of things we’re looking for, so the ideas that come in will have a better focus than those developed during a ”tell us what you’re thinking” type of open campaign. We always say: “It’s difficult to think outside of the box, if you don’t know what or where the box is.”

E.I.: Besides the efficiency of focused campaigns, are there other factors—perhaps, a specific issue or problem–that could predict a successful idea campaign?

R. de V.: Spark is organized in such a way that each idea campaign has a sponsor, who is typically a high-level department head or business unit manager. As typical for senior executives, they have a passion for cost savings. Consequently, they have a soft spot for idea campaigns aimed at optimizing internal operations that might result in cost reductions. Ideas submitted during such campaigns usually have a better chance to grab the attention of the company’s leadership and, therefore, a better chance of eventually being implemented. And, as Elaine has just mentioned, when employees feel that their ideas have a better chance of being noticed, they tend to submit higher-quality ideas. So, yes, idea campaigns aimed at cost reduction are, by and large, more successful than others.

This is, of course, not to say that our employees are bad at generating product or service ideas—no, they are good, and some of their ideas are simply awesome! It’s just that such ideas are more difficult to develop and more costly to implement.

E.I.: Recently, you’ve added another piece to your corporate innovation toolbox: a program called MatchBox. What is MatchBox? What was the problem you wanted to solve by launching it?

E.B.: Spark is generating a lot of ideas. However, we noticed that some of these ideas would stall—and not because they were low quality, but because their originators struggled to refine and develop them into attractive business propositions. First of all, many of our employees simply don’t have enough theoretical and practical knowledge in the area of idea development. Besides that, they often lack necessary resources—time and money—to convert their original thoughts into something tangible. We launched MatchBox to address this specific problem: the lack of knowledge and experience in the area of idea development.

So we started by bringing together 50 of the Virgin Media Ireland employees to an offsite workshop and giving them a two-day, extensive MatchBox training. Prior to the training, we made an agreement with management that the participants would be allowed half a day per week to work on their ideas.  We also gave to each participant a pre-paid credit card to cover expenses, if necessary. After two months of work and development, 15 participants made it through all six levels of the MatchBox program and presented their business cases to the company’s executive team, at Spark Pit, an exciting event modeled after the popular TV show “Dragons’ Den” (“Shark Tank” in the U.S.). Eight of the 15 presented ideas were elevated to the next level – Blue MatchBox. Being elevated to the Blue MatchBox category means that the management believes in the value of this particular idea and that a working team will be created to bring this idea to implementation. We’re happy to report that one idea has already been implemented in Ireland.

E.I.: What happened to the MatchBox participants whose ideas weren’t selected?

E.B.: Well, they went back to their daily routines, so to speak, but the participation in the program had a clear positive impact on them. First, they now have a valuable knowledge that they can apply in the future. They also got innovation “fervor,” and many of them have already engaged in new idea campaigns.  We also find that “MatchBoxers” continually submit ideas of very high quality! We fully expect these people to become innovation champions throughout the whole organization.

E.I.: Let’s talk about communication. Liberty Global has operations in over 30 countries. So in addition to connecting people with diverse expertise and training, working for different departments and business units—a challenge that is faced by all organizations launching innovation programs—you have to bring together employees speaking, literally, different languages. How do you deal with this kind of a challenge?

R. de V.: Over a year ago, Sarah Kelly joined me on the Spark team as the Innovation Network Manager; Sarah now plays the key role in our communications. With eight years in the company and a natural talent for connecting with people, she’s brought with her a large network that helps in linking subject matter experts with idea owners. For our global campaigns, Sarah writes all communications to share with our global teams. We strive to make English our common innovation language, and as a native speaker, Sarah can tell a story in a way that gets our message across simply, for everyone.

At the same time, it’s not a secret that some employees, for whom English isn’t their first language, may experience difficulties in expressing themselves when it comes to complex technical or business topics. We don’t want the language barrier dampening their enthusiasm for innovation. So, employees can now participate in Spark in their own languages in addition to English. At each location, our Spark managers and innovation champions provide support in translating documents written in English into local languages and vice versa. We’re also looking into opportunities to replace this human support with technology.

E.I.:  Finally, I’d like to ask you about proverbial “culture of innovation.” I noticed that you haven’t been using this term during our conversation. Why? Do you not believe that the “culture of innovation” is real?

R. de V.: Not at all: the cultural aspect of corporate innovation programs is very important. I believe that we do have a “culture of innovation” at Liberty Global; however, we don’t talk much about it, and I’d be troubled to give you a precise definition. I think that we have at least three major components of a bona fide innovation culture. First, we have created an atmosphere of openness to new ideas. Second, we have succeeded in creating a common, company-wide, language of innovation. Third, and perhaps, the most important, we have a tremendous support from our executive leadership, support that goes all the way up to the corner office of the company. So the culture in our organization is definitely shifting and it’s shifting both top down and bottom-up—exactly how we’d like it!

E.B.: We’re already witnessing some tangible results of this shift, as employees participating in the Spark program consistently score higher than other employees in engagement surveys. So we’ll continue to invest in our people and we’ll continue to perfect our programs. And we believe that if we do these things right, the “culture” will take care of itself.

p.s. You can read the second issue of my monthly newsletter on crowdsourcing here: http://mailchi.mp/b3e5728661b4/yes-to-science-no-to-betting. To subscribe to the newsletter, go to http://eepurl.com/cE40az.

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Crowdsourcing expertise from “generalists”

Recently, I came across an interesting article—and it was its title, “Why Experts Have Killed Innovation,” that attracted my attention. The author, Joshua Krook, a doctoral candidate in law at University of Adelaide, points out to the rising specialization of the global workforce and claims that education and training focused on increasingly narrow skills, for increasingly narrowly-defined positions, has a “dampening effect on innovative thought and creativity.” While truly innovative ideas tend to come from generalists operating at the intersections of various disciplines, argues Krook, we keep churning out specialized experts.

There is one more, equally damaging, effect of specialization on innovation: the time it takes. More and more professional positions associated with “innovation” now require applicants to have an advanced degree: MS or even PhD. As a result, instead of producing inventions in their twenties and thirties—arguably the most productive years for creative activities—young people spend this time on acquiring degrees that would only allow them to get hired for “creative” jobs. No surprise that the average age of Nobel Prize winners keeps steadily increasing (by 5-6 years per century).

Krook offers what he calls a “simple” solution to the specialization problem: companies should stop hiring experts in a particular filed and start hiring generalists (“capable of thinking outside the box,” as he puts it). Companies would also benefits from hiring independent outside innovators that had escaped the pressure of specialization.

As much I like the way Krook defines the problem, I’m very skeptical of his “simple” solution. The hiring process in most organizations, as formal and antiquated as it is, is intrinsically incapable of identifying qualified “generalists” (even if HR staffers would succeed in defining what “generalist” means for this particular organization).

And yet, there is a proven solution to the problem of workforce specialization: crowdsourcing. First, crowdsourcing allows an organization to temporally “hire” people who’re external to it and therefore unencumbered by the organization’s narrowly defined expertise. Second, launching a crowdsourcing campaign—using an appropriate venue—absolves the organization from the very need to actively look for qualified people (whether “experts” or “generalists”): qualified individuals will self-select and appraoch the organization with their solutions. Third, academic research on crowdsourcing shows that the likelihood of someone solving a problem increases with the distance between this person’s own field of technical expertise and the problem’s domain. This suggests that a properly designed crowdsourcing campaign may result in a breakthrough invention emerging from the interplay of different scientific and/or technological fields.

Crowdsourcing is not the only way to enrich the internal expertise with diversity originating from external crowds. Recently, a concept of crowdraising has been proposed by CrowdRaising.co, a NYC-based startup. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the CrowdRaising.co Advisory Board.) Crowdraising allows crowds to pledge time instead of money to support causes they like. Any organization running an innovation project can now hire a crowd to perform business-related activities. These activities could be as simple as taking part in a survey or beta testing, or they could involve more complex tasks, such as coding, design work or strategic advice.

Taken together, crowdsourcing and crowdraising may create a new paradigm of finding and utilizing employees in the gig economy. But at the very minimum, they can help companies avoid a trap of “hyper-specialization.”

p.s. You can read the second issue of my monthly newsletter on crowdsourcing here: http://mailchi.mp/b3e5728661b4/yes-to-science-no-to-betting. To subscribe to the newsletter, go to http://eepurl.com/cE40az.

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