Social Innovation

by | Jun 7, 2008 | Innovation Method | 2 comments

Web 2.0 social tools are swelling all around us, and the Fortune 100 are embracing them for two purposes – managing and engaging the internal employee base and managing and engaging the external customer base.  Wikis, blogs, mashups, and social networks will improve productivity, connectivity, knowledge transfer, and ultimately profitability if deployed correctly.
What about innovation?  Can the Web 2.0 environment increase, enable, accelerate, and deepen innovation within companies?  I am impressed with the emergence of tools such as Wridea and others that have taken on the challenge.  But I have yet to see one that works effectively.  I am trying to figure out why.  Are these applications using the wrong innovation tool or process?  Do they have an effective innovation process, but deploy it incorrectly?  Or, are people not using the application in an optimal way?
I experimented with online innovation about five years ago, about the time MySpace was introduced.  I used an online learning platform (eCollege 4.0) with a group of colleagues, and we tried to create new products within the health care space.  We used Systematic Inventive Thinking as the innovation process, and we structured the “event” over a four week period of time.  The goal was to invent new products without ever meeting face-to-face using asynchronous communications online.  I called it O.P.I.E for short – Online Product Innovation Exchange.
Here is how it worked.  Using simple threaded postings, a member of the group suggested an existing product as a starting point.  Another member took that product and listed the components of it.  Then, each member would select one of the components to work on.  Their job was to use one of the five templates of the S.I.T. method and create a virtual product.  They had to post these virtual products in a separate area of the online site.  Then, other members would review their suggested virtual products and use “Function Follows Form” to envision a viable use or benefit of the virtual product.  It was classic S.I.T. in an online, asynchronous environment.  The result?
O.P.I.E. was a miserable failure.  It generated few ideas, nothing really original, and it was frustrating for the participants.  I struggled with why for a long time.  Was it the wrong process, people, or platform?  As I have learned more about social media and Web 2.0 and how people really use and experience this environment, I am beginning to understand why.  All three aspects of O.P.I.E. – the process, people, and platform – needed some modification for this to work effectively.  Here is what I would do differently.
For social innovation to work, the platform has to be optimized for this purpose.  I had used a platform that was intended for traditional online learning, and it lacked the tools to properly facilitate the exchange and touchpoints needed for innovation.  The optimal platform needs to do a few things better.  For example, the site needs to notify other members when a virtual product has been posted.  With O.P.I.E., too much time elapsed in the asynchronous mode, and members were not sure when to login to check what was going on.  Other members would get frustrated because nothing seemed to be happening.  If members were notified, Twitter-like, that a new virtual product was available, they could engage the process more efficiently and all at once to create a flurry of ideas for discussion.  Secondly, the site needs to allow richer descriptions of virtual products.  This could be done either visually where participants somehow draw the virtual product, or audibly where participants leave a short, recorded description on the site for others to hear, either online or via their cell phone.  This would promote a richer response in the form of innovative uses and benefits of the virtual product.
What about the process and people?  I am still working on this, but I believe changes are needed in both.  The inherent flow of innovation is correct within the S.I.T. method, but I wonder if there are perhaps certain templates that are better suited for the online environment.  Also, there needs to be more work done in how the process is facilitated online and how expectations are set for the participants.  What components do they work on?  What virtual products do they respond to? How many ideas do they generate?  How many other ideas do they attempt to modify or improve?
Social innovation is promising.  It will reduce the cost of innovation and the time commitment allowing companies to innovate more often.  But the big win is the same as what many other Web 2.0 applications bring – it will greatly expand the numbers and diversity of participants.  This will yield more original ideas and innovations than ever before.