Thursday, July 10, 2008

Going beyond idea contests

Idea contests: Looks like idea contests are in vogue these days. I must have met at least half a dozen innovation champions from different organizations who said they had idea contests in the last 6 months. Some had specific fund allocated for this contest and they funded select few projects for Proof of Concept (PoC) development. Some said the initiative got choked when they received several hundred ideas and they weren’t ready with the idea selection criteria. Some cribbed about 99% ideas being incremental improvements. No matter what each of them said, I felt it was a good way to get the engine started.

Innovation wave: 5 years back if you were an IT company and if you had not assessed yourself for CMM level-5 or if you are not running a CMM initiative, you would be looked upon as a laggard. Looks like it is time for an innovation wave now. However, there is a difference. ISO, CMM, PCMM or any other quality certification comes with clear-cut guidelines as to what steps are to be taken and what artifacts to show to get there. Unfortunately, innovation is on a much murkier ground. NASSCOM has been playing the “innovation” trumpet for a few years now. However, most organizations are still lost as to where to start. Well, idea contests certainly seem to fit the bill, at least for now.

Where is the catch? You may say, “Where is the problem?” Well, the experiences most narrate seem to remind me of my graduate school days in Buffalo, New York. When we used to come back from an India trip during December vacation, starting the car was a dreadful experience. First, you don’t know whether the engine will start at all. Remember these were graduate student cars, either second-hand or more likely third-hand cars. If you are lucky and the engine starts, chances are high it will stop in the next few minutes. No wonder many of us became good at jump-starting cars by connecting cables to friend’s car’s batteries. Idea contests seem to resemble starting the engine which soon go back to its natural state – which is at rest. Real challenge is, how do you keep the engine running?

Basic unit of analysis for innovation capability: Doesn’t all this: idea contest, number of ideas it generates, number of employees who log ideas, what kind of ideas finally get prototyped or even make to product or offering definition, give an indication of organization’s innovation capability? Brown and Duguid say “No” in their paper titled “Organizational learning and communities of practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation” (published in 1991). These researchers and some others feel that basic unit of analysis for innovation capability should be self-governing passionate communities within the organization. In Google, these are called “intergrouplets” (see Sergy Solyanik’s blog),in KM circles these are called Communities of Practice, some places they are called SIG and McKinsey studies them as informal knowledge networks. Unfortunately, many organizations don’t know how to detect these networks, how to support them and of course, how to leverage them.

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