What Is An Employee Innovation Network, And Why Should You Care?

As Innovation Program leaders look to expand their scope and influence across complex, global organizations, they are turning to the development of Employee Innovation Networks. This article examines what these networks can look like, and provides some high level overview of the value that they can generate.

In the past 5 years or so large corporate organizations have jumped headfirst into the innovation space. Over this time they have taken on an ever-increasing scope of activities, in order to create new ideas and generate broad organizational impact. Activities such as innovation challenges, action learning teams, incubators / accelerators, etc. are now well established and understood within many Fortune 500 organization.

Now that these organizations have been running innovation centric activities for sometime, company leadership is examining their investment and demanding more leveraged value and impact. In short, innovation programs and their activities are often not producing the desired level of return or impact, and so leadership is asking for more, often with fewer resources.

Innovation programs and their activities are often not producing the desired results, so leadership is demanding more leveraged value and impact.

As a response, innovation program leaders and managers have been looking for mechanisms that unify and leverage their existing activities, as well as provide a more consistent presence for their program over time. To achieve these objectives, increasingly the response has been to develop employee innovation networks.

Approaches to employee innovation networks vary by company, but as a general rule employees are given a new designation (e.g. Innovation Catalyst, Super User, Champion, etc.) and innovation centric resources and activities are directed towards them. It is important to note that this new title is often in addition to employee’s existing day-to-day roles. How employees become members of these networks changes by the company, as does the strategic goals and objectives.

These networks range in approach, depth and value generated, but they are all designed with the following results and benefits in mind:

  • Further engage employees within the organization that want to provide innovative thinking
  • Provide an opportunity to leverage the impact of small innovation programs across large, globally disbursed organizations
  • In the short term, provide a pool of employees that can be directed towards existing innovation activities, in order to spur interest and positive results
  • In the longer term, this pool of employees can be directed to achieving specific innovation tasks, such as the generating and executing new ideas, in order to enhance ROI across the innovation program
  • In the even longer term, provide a broad base of employees that can be used to help enhance and shape the culture of the organization
  • For some organizations, often when they are process oriented, identify and nurture employees who may not fit within the standard success model, but are capable of generating value for the organization

Part of the value of developing a strategic approach is recognizing that networks require resources, focus and flexibility to the shifting priorities and goals of the organization.

Before going down the path of building an employee network, it is important to develop a strategic framework. Part of the value in this approach is to not only provide ongoing direction and support, but also to recognize that networks require resources, focus and flexibility to the shifting priorities and goals of the organization. Accordingly when developing a well-structured framework the following perspectives need to be considered (amongst other more detailed points):

  • What is the goal of the network? – There is no point in doing this unless some sort of tangible result is achieved (e.g. Improved employee engagement, more innovative activity, increased idea execution, more ideas generated, etc.)? How could / should those goals change over time?
  • What is the network member profile? – What defines individuals as members? How do they become a members (is it awarded to them or do they self select)?
  • What is the benefit for members? – Why would employees spend the time and energy becoming a network member?
  • What resources and / or activities can you realistically dedicate to managing and growing this network? – What is already in place that can be directed to these individuals? What vendor related resources or activities can be directed towards network members?

Organizations such as Wells Fargo, Qualcomm, Intuit, Pfizer, Whirlpool, GE, etc. already have these employee networks in place and they are being utilized in ways that generate significant benefits to each organization.

Networks should not be viewed as simple or short term activities.

Of course, in this article I am just skimming the surface of successfully developing and supporting these networks. Make no mistake, this should not be viewed as a simple or short term activity, but rather a longer-term force for change and cultural impact across your organization. Should you take a short-term perspective, there is a real risk that the effort will disenfranchise your employees, causing negative knock-on impacts to other activities that your program may operate. This kind of activity can have huge positive benefits for your program, but can also have negative consequences if handled incorrectly or with the wrong perspective. That said, the benefits to these efforts can be enormous and exciting.

So have a think about it and, as always, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions.

By Anthony Ferrier

About the Author

Anthony is the CEO of Culturevate, an organization that empowers a company’s employees to execute ideas and inspire a culture of innovation, through employee networks, a resource portal and training programs (developed in association with Professor Chris Labash from Carnegie Mellon University). Anthony is a widely read author, speaker and advisor to industry leaders at organizations such as Pfizer, U.S. Postal Service, Johnson & Johnson, ADP and Fidelity. He previously led The BNY Mellon innovation program and has a Masters of Commerce (University of Sydney) and Bachelor of Economics (University of Newcastle).

  • http://www.inovadores.in André Flores

    Hello Anthony, here is Andre from Brazil! I work developing innovation programs at medium size companies here. You don`t think that this kind of Employee Innovation Network should/could be used with other iniciatives such idea management programs and even acel/incubators? We normally see here that ONE iniciative only is normally very risky. Congrats for the article, is very good! Regards

  • http://www.leanventures.se Andy Cars

    Yes I agree with André, multiple initatives tied to a idea management program where each idea has an ambassador (who) responsible for attracting a team or network to support each step of the idea management process (what & when). Incentives (why) and training (how) need to be in place to make this possible. Without the who, what, when, why and how there will be no action.