Can Social Media Help Corporations Innovate?


Perhaps one of the most effective uses of social media tools is inside organizations where they can facilitate collaborative work and learning. In a global marketplace where disruptive shifts are inevitable, organizations need to leverage the creativity and passion of their employees, partners and customers. These “communities of practice” are frequently untapped engines of value creation. The opportunity is in the idea that when people can organize themselves to accomplish something together that they care about, “work” has the chance to become “passion” and passion leads to creativity and innovation. Today, we see an upshift in social creativity. The ever widening array of social tools are allowing billions of people to create value through self-expression. These new tools are transforming work systems inside and outside traditional organizations. In this article, we’ll explore some examples of how this is being done at leading innovators.

IBM Innovation Jam

IBM Research is the world’s largest research organization.  In 2006, they were working on amazing new capabilities, including software that could perform real-time speech translation and building an Internet that would allow shoppers to visit 3-D stores and see 3-D product demonstrations. IBM’s Chairman at the time, Sam Palmisano, believed that with over 346,000 employees, there had to be faster ways to bring these new technologies to market.  Using a group of interlinked bulletin boards and related Web pages on IBM’s intranet, the first “Innovation Jam” took place in two three-day phases in 2006. It was successful in uncovering and solving problems, and mobilizing support for new ways of using IBM technology. Over 150,000 IBM employees, family members, business partners, clients from 67 companies and university researchers took part. These people came from 104 countries, and their conversations continued 24 hours a day. Participants posted more than 46,000 ideas. They enthusiastically offered many potential money-making suggestions. IBM, has conducted the Innovation Jam every year since 2006.  The successes so far show that the process has helped IBM to innovate; however,there are other ways to manage large scale online conversations and IBM’s approach might not be the best for every large organization.  While it has been successful in generating lots of ideas, the concept of rapid innovation through developing those ideas online with social tools has not panned out as originally envisioned. Every idea is considered using a human intensive evaluation process that takes place after the Jams complete. Nevertheless, if you want to start innovating, an understanding of the Innovation Jam is essential; the Jam experience demonstrates the tremendous complexity of a large online conversation and shows one way to deal with that complexity successfully.  IBM not only uses this toolset internally but also has a service that makes the Jam software available to outside organizations. You can read much more about IBM’s Innovation Jam process here. While IBM’s approach focused on the capability to generate a large number of ideas, smaller online innovation discussions created at other companies have been successful at creating more excitement and quicker results., Dell & Starbucks

In 2007, Inc., the leading producer of sales lead management systems, introduced Salesforce Ideas, a system for managing suggestions from customers, employees and others. An online idea marketplace, the system is used by Salesforce itself and by Dell (for professional customers) and Starbucks (for everybody). The Starbucks conversation, open to everyone, is accessible at The key differentiator between these systems and the IBM Jams is that they allow visitors to vote on ideas that are most important to them and the leading vote getters are prominently displayed at the top of the site. Site visitors are encouraged to comment on the proposals at the top of the page and discussions sometimes evolve quickly about how proposed ideas can be put into practice. All three companies have implemented significant numbers of ideas discussed on the sites. Theoretically, the Salesforce Ideas platform could be expanded to support an effort the size of IBMs Jams, but it’s important to understand that because of the popularity contest nature of the process, the ideas that rise to the top may not be the ones that are the best from a business perspective.  Just as the top stories on Digg are typically the most sensational, a well written idea may get more votes that a potentially better although poorly written idea. The point here is that there are tradeoffs in these two approaches must be managed.

Psion, Sony and Free Social Platforms

Of course you don’t need to implement a large scale platform to drive innovation.  Last month, three “C”-level executives from rugged computer maker Psion participated in a Twitter Chat (#Psion) to discuss open innovation and gain insights from from a broader audience than they usually interact with. Sony Europe recently partnered with the global conservation organization WWF to create the Open Planet Ideas online community which aims to ‘harness the ingenuity and open innovation out there to help tackle environmental challenges’. Open Planet Ideas is hosted on Ideo’s OpenIDEO platform. The project is designed to get the public to imagine ways to repurpose Sony technology to address problems like climate change and water conservation. People who collaborate on winning ideas will get to work with sony engineers to develop the solutions.  This is Sony’s second experiment in crowdsourcing ideas for reusing their technology. Last year, they implemented the Forest Guard project, which got a group of young people using cameras, wireless networks and photo-stitching software to create an online community of citizen firewatchers.

The Bottom Line

Social tools are driving the innovation efforts at leading companies.  In some cases, it’s being done on a massive scale with a large infrastructure investment. In other cases, free platforms like Twitter and open minds in the executive suite are all that’s needed. Is your organization using social tools to leverage the power of your associates, partners and customers to reinvent your future?




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