Creating Networks of Interest

Previously, we told you about a research project where we examined more than 60 companies considered to be vanguards in their respective fields. From this group emerged five “serial innovators:” companies that habitually detect where markets are going, and use innovation to meet new customer demand. These companies share a handful of characteristics, the first of which is leadership’s empowerment of innovation, which we addressed in depth last month. The second of these shared characteristics: They leverage interest networks.

Today’s most progressive organizations encourage employees to innovate within a network of individuals who share their interests.

Would you believe that much of what you need to know about modern innovation, you could have learned in high school?

Regardless of whether you were a braniac, band geek or jock, you probably gravitated toward people who shared your interests. Back then, it was probably suggested to you that such cliques were self-limiting.

Not so fast, say today’s leading innovators. Smart companies encourage these groups, which in the adult world are called “interest networks.” Why? These networks can help flatten the organizational chart, breaking free from process-heavy, bureaucracy-laden research-and-development systems. Using interest networks, these companies have outmaneuvered the competition by exponentially increasing their number of innovations, while getting new products and services to market faster than ever.

Previously, we told you about a research project where we examined more than 60 companies considered to be vanguards in their respective fields. From this group emerged five “serial innovators:” companies that habitually detect where markets are going, and use innovation to meet new customer demand. These companies share a handful of characteristics, the first of which is leadership’s empowerment of innovation, which we addressed in depth last month.

The second of these shared characteristics: They leverage interest networks.

If social networks are about who you are interested in, interest networks are about what you are interested in. Serial innovators actively cultivate small, empowered, self-directed interest networks within their organizations. They then direct their employees to allocate a specific percentage of their time to projects aligned with their interests. They also use these networks to swiftly test new concepts.

Keeping their eye on the horizon

Most companies foster operational networks, which employees use to get daily work done. But interest networks are more strategic in nature, as they are built around personal interests that transcend job responsibility. These interests come in the door and up the elevator with each employee. This is important, because the forces that drive change in any industry typically come from the outside world.

So these interest networks are about the future. They help identify what tomorrow will bring, and aid the company in identifying challenges and potential opportunities. Interest networks cast their eyes forward, looking for oncoming forces of disruption.

These networks are not casual endeavors. They result from formal processes that encourage internal entrepreneurship. Consider the following:

Google has what it calls an “80/20 Innovation Time Off (ITO) model.” The ITO program encourages Google employees to spend 80% of their time on core projects, and roughly 20% (or one day per week) innovating within an interest group on company-related concepts. Some of Google’s most significant new product launches, including Gmail, Google News and AdSense, have been reported to originate from the ITO program.¹

Eisai Co., a Japanese pharmaceutical company, places each of its employees on an innovation project, requiring them to spend time with patients. Employees report back to their interest networks on ways the company can be more in tune with patients’ needs. Most recently, these interest networks led the company to create a jelly-like medication that Alzheimer’s patients can easily swallow.²

Getting started

Based on our observation of serial innovators, the following are best practices for leveraging interest networks:

  • Networks are often assembled using individual “people pages” from the company’s intranet. Make sure employees fill their pages out thoroughly, noting their interests and hobbies.
  • Assemble the groups without regard for the participants’ rank in the company’s formal hierarchy. The governing mentality must be that anyone in the organization can make a difference.
  • Start the group with a very limited budget. Frugality often leads to creative solutions that trump the organization’s gravitational pull toward controls and protecting turf.
  • Use technology platforms (like Salesforce.com, Spigot and Brainstorm) that enable the collaboration process.
  • Give interest networks end-to-end accountability for the implementation of ideas, as they otherwise tend to lose momentum when handed off.
  • At first, use interest networks to test existing ideas for their soundness. From there, identify one low-risk pilot project that an interest network might develop into a new project or service.

In life, mixing things up is important. But serial innovators know that having employees click within their cliques can lead to groundbreaking work.

What processes and technology exist within your company that could allow you to identify and leverage interest networks?

By Soren Kristensen & Nathan Bull

About the authors


Soren Kristensen is a senior executive in the Innovation and Product Development practice at Accenture.




Nathan Bull is a senior executive in the company’s Operations consulting group, who is focused on establishing repeatable processes for innovation. Accenture is a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company.

References

  1. CloverView. “What Secrets Do the Most Innovative Companies In The World Have When It Comes To Innovation?” March 17, 2011. http://www.cloverleafinnovation.com/blog/secrets-innovative-companies-innovation
  2. Wall Street Journal, “Who Has Innovative Ideas? Employees.” June 14, 2012.
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704100604575146083310500518.html
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