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Crowdsourcing: friend or foe of KM?

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InnoCentive was first envisioned in 2000, when founder Alph Bingham began to think of applying the same concepts that were evident in open source software development to innovation. “The idea was to capture the knowledge that is distributed in crowds that are not organized in the structure of a traditional company but in a community that has a common goal,” says Bingham, “and use it for the innovation process.” In addition, he needed to figure out a way to monetize it. The result was the InnoCentive platform and Challenge Driven Innovation methodology.

Companies looking for solutions, referred to as “seekers,” sign up and present a challenge, which is the issue they would like to solve, along with an offer of a cash award. “We work with the seekers to define the issue, spell out the criteria for success and monitor progress,” says Bingham. “We also have an online project room in which participants can upload material and ask questions.” A staff of PhDs in biology, chemistry, computer science and other fields can handle most questions; if not, the seeker will be contacted.

Meanwhile, those interested in responding to the challenge sign on as “solvers” and submit their solutions. A unique benefit of crowdsourcing is its ability to readily provide input from fields outside the one in which the problem exists. “A lot of organizations and even sectors have problems that are not defined in a way that renders them ‘portable’ yet,” Bingham explains. “They are well-known within closed circles and everyone understands them. Our job is to make them understandable and actionable to those in other fields, fostering the right environment for creative and innovative solutions.”

Innovation management and ROI

When companies like GE, Nielsen and Cisco want to innovate, one of the resources they turn to is an innovation platform from Brightidea. Many corporate initiatives using Brightidea have been ongoing for years, driven internally by corporate innovation teams or innovation labs, and continue to be productive. For example, GE used Brightidea’s platform in 2010 to expand its in-house Ecomagination program, which was established in 2005 to improve the power grid. The most recent challenge, held in 2016, engaged 85,000 participants and produced 6,000 ideas.

A program established at Neilsen now produces 500 ideas per quarter, and in 2013, the company estimated that those ideas have saved 400,000 labor hours throughout its many divisions. Neilsen has a dedicated innovation team, with three managers and about 10 active initiatives at any given time. The use of Brightidea has increased employee involvement, allowed measurement of participation and program effectiveness, and provided statistics on results.

A key ingredient for success with an innovation program is proper preparation, according to Joey Greenwald, director of marketing at Brightidea. “We do a lot of consulting upfront,” Greenwald says. “We listen to what they want to accomplish and recommend the best road forward.” The consulting staff also assesses the customer’s maturity with respect to innovation, which helps establish the next steps.

A pioneer in the field, Brightidea was founded in 1999 and has grown exponentially in the past few years. The platform contains nine innovation “apps.” They include “Hack” to help set up and run hackathons; “Incubate,” to manage an incubator or innovation lab; and modules for promoting employee engagement, solving key business problems and monitoring trends. “The apps selected depend on what the company wants to accomplish,” says Greenwald. “Some organizations don’t know exactly what they need to do, and this is where our interaction with them can help provide direction.

At Cisco, 50,000 of the company’s 70,000 employees participate in the innovation community, called Smartzone. “The company ran more than 30 initiatives last year that resulted in 90 new ideas being implemented,” Greenwald says, “and they reported a $79 million business impact as a result.” Although skepticism about crowdsourcing innovation is inevitable, the best way to manage it is by picking a troublesome issue and solving it in a convincing way, according to Stephanie Hegarty, the innovation manager at Cisco. She also advises having a team that can support the full innovation process, because so many ideas can get stuck in the incubation stage.

“Generating and documenting a clear ROI makes these programs successful and enduring,” says Greenwald. But resistance to change, especially from executives and managers who have developed corporate processes over the years, is inevitable. “The idea of democratization can be threatening to management,” Greenwald explains. “A good strategy is to get alignment with leaders across business groups, who often have specific problems to solve. Once you can show hard data of results achieved with a business group, you earn buy-in and get a seat at the table because you can justify what you are doing.”



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