Outside / Inside Innovation: Combining Open Innovation with Employee Networks to Drive Success

As business leaders seek additional impact from Innovation Programs, new ways to leverage and scale existing resources are being explored. One approach is to link externally sourced ideas with networks of innovation-minded employees, to generate additional business impact.

Note that this is a summary of a full whitepaper. Read the full whitepaper here >

While Innovation Programs have been around for some time, in the past 2-3 years there has been growth in two-major areas:

  • “Open” Innovation (OI): A methodology, whereby ideas, inspirations and insights are sourced from outside of an organization.
  • Employee Innovation Networks: An approach that connects, educates and engages key employees around innovation skills, on an ongoing basis.

To date, both of these areas have been important to innovation leaders but in distinct and parallel ways. While this separation has made sense up until this point, it is important for innovation leadership to consider how these focus areas can be better aligned to enhance business results. This should be considered within the context of interrelated, complex organization structures and the drive to enhance impact in an efficient manner.

As a result of these pressures, innovation leaders are seeking to connecting both OI and employee networks with a combination of activities, including:

  • OI training: Companies can educate their employee network members around OI approaches and techniques.
  • Idea Development Training: Networked employees can be trained around how to help build elements of new ideas introduced to an organization.
  • Process, Tools and Resources: It can be beneficial for innovation programs to develop processes, providing resources and tools that guide participants as they seek to support new ideas introduced to the organization from external (or even internal) sources.
  • Communication channels: Communication channels can be created that are directed to network members, in order to encourage discussion around ideas that may be imported into the organization.
  • Strategy: As with any kind of innovation project, it’s important that a strategy is in place that aligns with the priorities of the organization.

The degree of alignment of employee networks and OI efforts vary, often in order of innovation maturity levels:

  • Awareness: Network members can be made aware of new thinking (specific ideas or thematic trends) that may be introduced into an organization or more broadly around OI efforts.
  • Champion: As new ideas are introduced to an organization, members can act as champions.
  • Resources: Members of these networks can be used to help develop new ideas, and provide opportunities for quick scaling of thought.

This kind of approach can generate significant benefits to the organization, including:

  • Enhanced idea success rate: Rather than new ideas being left to fend for themselves, the actions of network members can increase the rate of success of their development and execution.
  • Culture: This combined effort creates a deeper culture of innovation across the organization, by getting more people involved in deeper and more varied ways, in a way that limits risk and wasted resources.
  • Employee engagement: Giving selected employees (through an innovation network) the opportunity to further engage with the outside world, and align themselves with the development of new ideas, is a great way to drive engagement.
  • Scale: This approach helps scale the impact of innovation efforts across often complex organizations.

There are a number of factors driving the adoption of this new combined approach to innovation management.

  • Supporting a Collaborative Environment: For some time organizations have been seeking solutions to create more collaborative organization, often supported by technology solutions and other more personally focused efforts such as training.
  • Seeking the positive deviants: Science fiction author William Gibson famously opined that the future already exists, but that it is unevenly distributed.  This notion, that in any field there are pockets of forward-thinking, was popularized by Richard Pascale’s work around positive deviance. In a corporate context, this theory can be seen as process of using hidden innovators to help scale-up innovation activities more widely.
  • The changing role of managers: It is essential that middle managers are actively encouraged to participate and support both OI and innovation-focused networks.
  • Connecting the dots: Innovation leaders are often seeking to include influential “connectors” within their Employee Innovation Networks, so that they can help drive OI efforts, as these individuals can help drive the success of new ideas as they seek support within the organization.

Given that this is a relatively new approach, and only now being better understood within corporate environments, it is important to fully understand some of the challenges with this kind of effort:

  • Manage resources: Don’t overextend your existing centralized innovation resources, which can be stretched with integrated and complex implementations.
  • Plan: Be sure to have a fully planned strategic framework in place to guide your integration and development efforts.
  • Stakeholder buy-in: Pay special attention to your stakeholders, especially those that are going to be detractors.
  • Be patient: These efforts take time to form and drive results.
  • Report results: Track all business value.

Innovation leaders need to leverage their efforts at every opportunity, in order to not only further drive impact and results, but benefit Business Unit and corporate leadership. By combining both OI and employee networks, progressive leaders position themselves for creating greater business value and ultimately career success.

Note that a full whitepaper has been developed related to this article, that examines each of the key points from this article in more depth. Feel free to download it here.

By Anthony Ferrier and Adi Gaskell

About the Authors

Anthony Ferrier 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).

Adi Gaskell is a Social Business Consultant, advising large organizations on innovation and social business trends. He is an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. He specializes in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. Adi holds a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoys exploring the edge of organizational behavior. He is a regular contributor to some of the biggest innovation and social sites including DZone, Social Business News, Social Media Today and Work.com, and his own website: adigaskell.org. He is a well regarded public speaker, having delivered talks to NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today. 

  • Raluca Pauna

    You mentioned that strategy must be in place for an innovation project to align it with the organization priorities.How do you think this alignment can be achieved? Are you not afraid that this alignment could destroy the innovation because looks like a kind of organization’s control function.
    Raluca Pauna
    SA Specialist in technical innovation

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