The Role of Social in Innovation Strategy

In a recent SAP Community Network post Harun Asad mentioned innovation as one social strategy. In this article he explores the role of social in innovation strategy more broadly, and cites several real-world examples as well as shares some predictions for the future.

Most of the attention around social seems to be about marketing.  But the application of social extends far beyond that as illuminated in the examples and discussion below.  Social has significant application to front end innovation, development of new products and services, co-creation, customer experience management, and culture of innovation.

Social for front end innovation (FEI)

As I alluded to in my SAP Community Network post on 6 Key Ways to Use Social for Business Impact, FEI is a key area where social is being leveraged.  In my experience working with mid-market and Fortune 500 companies on innovation strategies, we often use social platforms for ongoing strategic intelligence aimed at discovery.  For example, we will dive deep into customer segment conversations to explore unmet needs and wants, identify white space opportunities, track competitor moves in the market, identify burgeoning markets and audiences, and discover new potential alliance or M&A opportunities.

Importantly, this social strategy does not have to be limited to public forums.  An array of private community platforms is available from iTracks, Dub Studios, Vovici, and similar vendors.  As well, if you are interested in exploring farther out (say 5-10 years) Recorded Future is gaining traction as a social tool for doing just that.

Similarly, Maria Thompson, Director of Innovation Strategy at Motorola Solutions, and her colleagues are mining social media for customer and market data for insights to spur innovation.  In particular, they analyze social media for unarticulated customer needs originating from repetitive tasks, or ‘jobs to be done’.  As well, they mine social media data to uncover trends across customer demographics and emerging technologies.

Social for ideas management

I recently caught up with Vincent Carbone, COO of Brightidea, a leading enterprise software company that helps organizations more effectively and efficiently manage ideas for innovation.  He sees social as a fundamental activity that drives innovation both internally and externally, and this has always been the case even before the advent of social technologies.  Importantly, from Vincent’s perspective innovation is not just about R&D; it could be about new business models, new processes, new services, and many other things.

Interestingly, in his work with leading companies like GE, Hess, Adobe and many others, Vincent often finds that clients don’t even use the term ‘ideas’.  Rather, they may talk about new features, enhancements to a product, cost savings, or other terms that simply reflect new strategies or business opportunities.

Irrespective of technology’s role, this process has always been a very social activity.

Before launching Brightidea, Vincent and his colleagues spent considerable time understanding how ideas happen inside organizations, and how they get commercialized.  Irrespective of technology’s role, this process has always been a very social activity. For example, in the early stages you might socialize an initial idea with colleagues to get feedback. Then you might develop a more formal document and get more feedback. Then you might socialize the idea at higher levels, including your boss and his/her bosses.  Later on, if the idea receives investment, a project team might be engaged to fully develop and launch the idea, which requires further socialization and collaboration on many levels.

So today, what we’re seeing according to Vincent is that social technologies are facilitating this social process in new and better ways.  With Brightidea software, for example, tweets, articles, blog posts and other artifacts related to an idea can be more easily gathered and connected to the idea.  As a result, ideas can become richer, more robust and spawn new ideas more rapidly and at lower cost.

Social technologies also help to determine the outcome of ideas; for example, whether or not they receive funding.  With social applications like Facebook and Twitter, idea management can also become an externally-oriented activity by enabling participation with stakeholders beyond an organization’s walls.  With GE’s Healthymagination, for example, every idea got its own Twitter hash tag, which resulted in an additional layer of conversation and context around the initial idea.

However, Maria Thompson, who also uses social platforms for idea management, cites a key lesson learned so far in her experience is that distributed regional locations need customer and business context to fully engage in creative problem solving on idea generation platforms.  In addition, when people participate in online idea generation, it can sometimes be harder to achieve the same level of dedicated focus, energy and creative synergy that often results from face-to-face inventing or creative problem solving sessions.

Social for new products and services

On a related note, social is not only being used to conceive and develop new products and services; it’s actually becoming integral to the new offering.  For example, KLM Airlines recently introduced its ‘Meet and Seat’ program that lets passengers pick their seatmates based on Facebook and LinkedIn profiles.

Social for customer experience management

At a recent B2B Netmarketing Breakfast I attended in New York City, I had a chance to chat briefly with Joshua Kidd, Digital Marketing Manager for Siemens USA after his presentation.  As a sponsor for the Aspen Ideas Festival, Siemens used Twitter to not only promote their sponsorship but also to drive customer engagement and collect feedback and ideas around sustainability, an important strategic theme for the company.

Specifically, Joshua shared how his team sponsored the trending topic ‘Greencity’ on Twitter’s ad platform.  Results included 97 million impressions of #Greencity views, 195,000 #Greencity clicks, and over 12,000 #Greencity tweets.  What’s more, followers skyrocketed from 250 before the program to 8,529 after.  While the Greencity initiative was clearly about marketing on one level, it was also very useful in improving customer experience and collecting new ideas for new business opportunities.

What’s more, according to Attensity, an award-winning contact center solutions provider, “As more and more consumers turn to the social web for answers, contact center organizations can no longer afford to dismiss or ignore social media as irrelevant to the business.  The next generation of contact center requires a new breed of software solutions that integrate social media seamlessly with other contact center channels such as email, phone calls, chat sessions and text messages” (CRM Magazine, March 2012).

Social for culture of innovation

In my work with organizations on improving their culture of innovation, we often deploy a quantitative assessment instrument to understand what an organization’s culture of innovation looks like in order to provide strategic recommendations for how to improve the culture of innovation.  Among the key drivers of innovation we evaluate, the role of systems/platforms, tools and environment for collaboration is explored in depth.

At IBM a decentralized, employee-empowered approach to social media is used to drive collaboration both inside and outside the company (Crosby in Marketing Management, Winter 2011).  According to Crosby, there are 17,000 internal blogs, thousands of external bloggers, and hundreds of thousands of users on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.  IBM has deployed its own social media tools for internal employees, and the company was one of the first to establish social media policies to facilitate their culture of innovation.

Social Network Analysis (SNA) is gaining traction as a method for understanding how people in an organization connect and collaborate with each other to foster innovation.

In addition to the use of social platforms for advancing a culture of innovation, Social Network Analysis (SNA) is gaining traction as a method for understanding how people in an organization connect and collaborate with each other to foster innovation.  For example, PhilosophyIB, a New York area management consulting firm that helps companies build organizational momentum, leverages SNA to map an organization’s innovation network in order to accelerate innovation.  In his recent interview with Fox News, Steve Garcia, a Partner with PhilosophyIB, explains how SNA allows organizations to better understand informal relationships in order to improve problem solving, talk about new ideas, and commercialize new products and services.

Future predictions

Over the next few years much of what we’re seeing today will simply mature, according to Vincent Carbone of Brightidea.  It’s no big surprise that Apple’s next major core software upgrade, called Mountain Lion and due out later this year, includes Twitter integration, among other notable mobile and multi-media sharing features.  Researchers at the Syracuse University iSchool are working on a beta version of social radio, called WeJay Social Radio, where users can create their own sounds, mix and share music, and collaborate on ideas for radio shows.

Audi e-tron electric sports carSocial technologies in the future are also going to facilitate the building of physical products.  We’re already starting to see examples of this.  Take Audi, for example, which is crowdsourcing the design of a new electric car.  As well, at an organizational level, it’s likely we will see entirely new ways of sharing and collaborating that more fully integrate social applications into our daily work habits.

Maria Thompson thinks today’s social technologies do not easily allow for mining of enabling information.  For example, it is difficult to search Facebook to identify friends who are struggling with the same problem you are, to review their thoughts and solutions.  Today you need to actively solicit and pull information from your online network and hope that someone you know can help you.  She anticipates that social media and associated mining technologies will improve significantly in the future to make both questions and answers more accessible across multiple media types.

Since 2011 Kalypso, a leading innovation consulting firm, has been studying the use of social media and related technologies for product innovation.  According to Kalypso findings, ‘social product innovation techniques such as crowdsourcing and open innovation are offering new ways to incorporate the voice of the customer and collaborate on product development and innovation.’

Kalypso, Social Product Innovation Benefits (2010 and 2011)

For 2012 the firm makes several predictions based on study findings:

  • Companies that have adopted social product innovation will increase their usage based on the benefits they are already receiving.
  • Companies that stepped back to re-plan in 2011 will re-emerge on the social product innovation scene in 2012.
  • Companies will likely see even greater benefits in 2012 based on lessons learned and emerging best practices.

How should you integrate social into your innovation strategy?

As we can see from the above examples, social technologies are being used in a variety of ways to support innovation.  To determine what role social should play in your innovation strategy you first will want to define and align internally on where you are focusing your innovation efforts.  Or, said another way, you will want to make sure your approach to social is aligned with your innovation strategy.

For example, if your core innovation strategy is focused on new ideas you will probably want to integrate social media into your idea management approach, process and tools.  As another example, if your innovation activities are centered on R&D then you may wish to leverage social platforms to explore and collect insights about long term trends, for co-development, and/or for partner and alliance relationship management (remember, social platforms can be private communities).  A third example might be if your innovation agenda is about building a culture of innovation you may wish to focus your social adoption on internal governance, processes, policies and tools that enable employees to integrate social applications into their daily work streams.

By Harun Asad

About The Author


Harun Asad is currently employed with ConEdison Solutions, a leading energy services company based in New York. Previously, he was an Adjunct Professor at NYU-Poly, Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer for Lodestar, a b2b consulting firm, and held a number of other corporate positions in strategy, marketing, and innovation. He holds an MBA, a BS in Marketing and is completing an MS in Information Management. He can be reached via Email at harunasad@gmail.com or on Linkedin and Twitter.

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