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As organizations realize the value and impact that involving their employees can have in their innovation programs, sharing ideas, collaborating and enriching concepts, the task of keeping those individuals engaged and interested becomes real for any program with sustainable ambitions. Organizations are increasingly using software applications to inspire their employees, offering them a channel to share ideas, build upon the ideas of others, and contribute to business cases and late stage innovation projects.

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Most companies can encourage their knowledge workers to share ideas in reaction to a campaign for new insights, but repeating that task, on demand, within large or complex organizations requires you to have your finger on the pulse of the organization as a whole. The software will give your innovation process scale, but it won’t ensure people continue to use it just because we ask.

The Lone Wolf

Often the role of ‘Innovation Manager’ is a new one to the company, sitting in a variety of places such as IT, HR, R&D or as a separate entity entirely. Most companies will grow this team slowly, in-line with results and ambition.  Many innovation teams are therefore faced with the prospect of a small handful of passionate innovation professionals, trying to support the needs of a multi-billion dollar multinational. Often, this means innovation managers are ‘lone wolves’ trying to understand a complex eco-system of departments, cultures and skill sets in order to tap its collective insight.

  • How can these specialists understand the cultural tensions the latest acquisition has created?
  • How can they know where the real innovation needs are when they’re often centralized or spread across just a few locations?
  • How can they share program successes through conventional communications channels within a company cynical to corporate messages?

These are just some of the many issues facing our Innovation Managers.

The tensions these issues create a greater demand for larger and more varied innovation teams. Ideally a company places innovation managers in each location or small division to ensure that everyone’s aware of the wider program ambitions and local challenges that can be resolved. Budgets however are finite, and few innovation professionals have the luxury of a large diverse network on which to call.

Some organizations are building networks of innovation champions or advocates across their companies in order to help them promote engagement and understand each locale. Volvo Trucks and Bombardier Transportation have both used elements of the advocate principle to great effect. These are unpaid volunteers with a passion to innovate, collaborate and get involved in the online program. 

Three questions emerge as we begin to think about establishing an advocate community:

1. How can we identify these potential advocates?

We could ask for volunteers given we can’t put them on the payroll of the innovation team. Some will come forward, probably those with the greatest passion for innovation, the more creative types perhaps. Yet, can we be sure that these volunteers remain as powerful advocates over many months? What happens when something else catches their eye, or the day job takes over?

We’ve found a more effective way is to select them as a result of observing the right behaviors. We can see from participation that they’re joining in regularly, they collaborate and help others. We can see this over a number of campaigns or innovation activities. This group are the perfect advocates.

2. What role should we ask of them?

It’s important not to ask for too much of their time.  We have the evidence that they’re already getting involved and like the process, so wherever possible we shouldn’t increase the burden. 

The key need is for them to carry on, but also talk about the collaborative innovation program when an opportunity presents itself.  The iconic ‘water cooler’ moment might be a cliché, but people talk about work over coffee, lunch and between other tasks.  All we ask is they talk more about the program, its objectives and its results.  This will help build confidence and belief in the program through their peer networks who in turn will share this information over time.

3. How can we keep them engaged?

Firstly, we should train them so they understand what being a good advocate means.  Explain the principles of what we’re trying to achieve, why they’ve been identified and how we’d like them to become part of a unique community that supports innovation.

Secondly, we need to build that community by getting the advocates together.  Generally this will be impossible in person, but remotely may be more likely.  A monthly conference call to share updates, ideas, stories and progress will help keep them talking and allow the community to build (as we notice other candidates) without struggling to put everyone in a room or have them travel.

Summary

We’re increasingly turning to software to help innovation professionals reach deep into the organization and tap into the collective insight of our enterprise.  Developing a real culture of innovation may take many years, embedding passion and enthusiasm for innovation is beyond the reach of the standard internal communications messages you may see. 

By considering those that are regularly joining in and doing exactly what we want the rest of the company to do, we push innovation beyond the reach of a lone wolf and begin to engineer it into the DNA of our company.  Potential advocates aren’t hard to find, but they should be trained and cared for.  Build a unique community of those with passion for innovation right across your enterprise, ask them to share stories and bring back insights.  Getting them together will help strengthen the group and its desire to help out.

Walk through the slide deck on Innovation Advocates:

 

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Colin Nelson

Colin Nelson

Colin specializes in the social science that underpins how large or diverse groups collaborate online. He is an expert in the field of Collective Intelligence, supporting global organizations and communities on how to achieve efficient, effective, and sustainable innovation and business change using online tools and processes. Colin is a respected thought leader on Innovation Management and Enterprise Collaboration, publishing numerous articles on the topic. Colin has a background in Market Research, Information Management and Management Consulting. However, for the last 10 years he’s worked in new product development, Innovation Management and Collective Intelligence.

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