How to Succeed in Social Innovation

The Promise Technical organizations are looking for ways to share ideas and innovate across layers and across projects and they have found that the creation of social innovation communities can be very effective.  However best in class technology platforms, top executive sponsorship, and budget are necessary but not sufficient to guarantee a vibrant community.  Why, because online communities are magnifying lenses.  If there are deficits in the culture around interaction and communication, the implementations of social technology magnifies the deficits.

The Drama

We were recently heard of a large telecommunications provider on the East Coast that wanted to create an international innovation community.  Managers were eager to roll out the community and decided that they could skip a formal launch campaign with numerous all hands meetings.

When the launch came, they reported a tepid response.  Besides a few active participants, most metrics of community vitality were negative. They waited over several weeks of out of town trips of key the managers, but alas, no change in the community usage.  Conversations would start, but run out of gas quickly because no one would reply.

They reported that they were following all the best practices like using tools already in use, creating community stewards, piloting the technology, top management support, etc.  Had they had missed something obvious?  They did skip the roll out meetings and jumped right into deployment, could that be it?

The Discovery

An analysis of the data showed that the VP of Engineering's direct reports contributed as they should, but lower levels in the organization were relatively silent.  They started simply by interviewing, having a non-threatening administrator talk to some of his closest business partners down in the organization.  In one day, he was excited to share his early results.  Interviews were insightful because the theme was so consistent and so fundamental.  At first they did not believe the message, so the VP asked the administrator sample some others from different geographies and departments.  The answers were the same.  What was it?  “There was only downside for participation.”

The VP of R&D was disappointed.  What she heard was that there was no trust of management so any conversation could be used against you.  The community participants did not see any upside – only downside.  They were afraid that they would say something career limiting and that would be the end of it.  There was not a spirit of sharing and collaboration, but rather one of credit and looking out for number one.

The Checklist

The next opportunity you have to create an innovation community look first at your culture.  Communities are magnifiers, so ask yourself, do you have the right culture to be successful?

  • Do you penalize risk-takers?

  • Are devils advocates welcomed or shunned?

  • Do engineers jockey for credit, or share in the wins?

  • Are team members publically criticized by management?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then you have a lot of groundwork to do to be successful.  In fact, if you are in a hurry and you want to spawn innovation through community quickly, you might want to go outside your organization first.  We would not recommend you try it internally until you address the core cultural issues.  However, once you do, you can realize the benefits of Social Innovation to increase employee engagement and create market shaping new products.