Whether they are called Web-based collaboration tools, feedback communities or ideation management (aka idea generation) platforms, a crop of Web 2.0 collaboration tools is helping the collective thoughts of enterprise employees sprout and bear fruit.
Vendors that fall into this category -- including Spigit Inc., InnoCentive Inc., IdeaScale LLC and I-Nova Software -- are broadening the definitions of corporate intranets and public collaboration forums by creating idea-sharing communities. Built on Web-based collaboration software developed according to behavioral science methods, software algorithms and game mechanics, these are designed to formalize idea management and to entice employees to take part in the innovation process.
If that description sounds like a mouthful, you could simply call it a "suggestion box on steroids," as does Jaimee Clements of AAA. The automotive services company built a Web 2.0 collaborative community based on Spigit's tool, and used it to tap pockets of knowledge and ideas spread throughout its 5,000-employee base. The community is part of a larger effort by AAA to breathe new life into its innovation strategy; its goal is to allow employees to share and rate ideas that over time will result in the introduction of new member services.
"With our long [100-year] history, it becomes a little harder to innovate, the longer you've been around," said Clements, social media strategist and senior online product manager for AAA, headquartered in Heathrow, Fla. "We know we need to focus on innovation, and generate and collaborate on new ideas in new ways, but we had no tool to help us do that."
Previously, news and articles related to AAA's lines of business were posted on the company intranet, but no one was posting comments on them; even when an employee did make a suggestion, it went into a void.
"Some comments were really good ideas about improving services and products or about new products, but there was no process and no visibility into whether or not someone was going to do something with it," Clements said.
Stirring up the creative juices
A Spigit pilot run was launched in AAA's e-business unit and has since spread across the company and to such partners as The Automotive Club of America. Employees now can post ideas on the platform, read comments by peers and receive "graduation levels" based on how much support the idea garners.
Employees are awarded points when their ideas graduate to different levels -- the final level representing an idea that is put into production. These points can be used to buy stock in other people's ideas or purchase items in the company's virtual store. The real incentive, however, is the ability to put your two cents in.
"People like the idea that their ideas are getting in front of other parts of the business and in front of the people who make the decisions," Clements said. "Before, the process was a little bit discouraging, because even if they sent an email to a department, there was no guarantee that it would get in front of the right person."
The Web-based collaboration tool ranks ideas based on the reputation of the person submitting the idea. Essentially, ideas and submitters are ranked by peers based on how colleagues react to their posts, how quickly the community comments on their ideas, or the success and failure rates of the graduation of their ideas.
Spigit CEO Paul Pluschkell compares the methodology to the one used by Google Inc. for page rankings, explaining idea rankings as "the wisdom of the crowd."
Spigit's service is Web-based and starts at $15 per user, per month for fewer than 500 users. The average community built using Spigit is around 50,000 users. Some customers are paying upwards of $380,000 a year for unlimited users, Pluschkell said.
AAA plans to integrate Spigit with Yammer because so many conversations begin on the social networking platform and need to make their way somehow onto the collaborative platform, Clements said. Many lines of business at AAA also use Microsoft's SharePoint, which can be integrated with Spigit's tool.
Where Web-based collaboration is headed
Product lifecycle management vendors already are including such Web-based collaboration software or ideation-management tools as a module within their PLM suites, according to TJ Keitt, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based consultancy.
"Ideation management is part of the Web 2.0 sphere, and part of a general trend that Web 2.0 technology won't live on its own," Keitt said. "It will be subsumed by other business applications and business processes."
Within the next two to three years, ideation-management tools will be used "lightly" by 21% of companies in North America and Europe, he said.
Customer-facing use of such technologies can open companies up to some risks, Keitt warned. Some employees and internal-facing groups are not meant to interact with the public, and such products still need to improve automation when it comes to filtering ideas, he said.
Whether for internal or external use -- if they're done right, however -- "[Web-based communities] provide a way for good ideas to rise to the top and above the fray," Keitt said.
A small group at AAA is examining the challenges of introducing an idea-sharing community to its members. First, contributors to the platform would need to be vetted to ensure they are actually AAA members, which would take time, Clements acknowledged.
"We would have to have enough staff and the right infrastructure in place to manage the community externally so members don't get discouraged if they don't see progress on a particular idea," Clements said.
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