As innovators, my firm and I are often called on to watch for and synthesize trends, so we can help our clients predict the future and create new products and services. One new trend we’ve been watching for a while is the concept of innovation using social networking and wisdom of crowds.


Gathering ideas

A number of new software products and websites have sprung up recently to encourage the submission of ideas – online idea suggestion boxes, social networking sites, innovation forums and many others. The most well-known and well-publicized site is Dell’s IdeaStorm site. These sites allow anyone, anywhere to submit ideas about topics of interest to them. While there are some advantages to this approach, there are some significant concerns to think about before taking this approach. In particular:

  • Keeping the idea generation focused on topics that are important to you
  • Managing the volume of ideas – Dell’s Ideastorm has over 9,000 currently
  • Implementing a process to do something with the ideas beyond collecting and voting
  • Gaining real insights beyond the expectations and knowledge of the crowd

Innovation requires more than simply collecting a lot of ideas from a generally dispersed audience and allowing them to vote on the ideas they submitted.

If something seems too easy…

If it seems to be too easy to be true, then it’s probably a new website. Innovation requires more than simply collecting a lot of ideas from a generally dispersed audience and allowing them to vote on the ideas they submitted. If you don’t direct the idea generation into topics of interest to you, the suggestion box will be full of ideas of interest to the submitters but quite possibly at odds with your product or service strategy. Then you’ve collected ideas and set expectations about those ideas with your customers that you don’t want to implement.

Drowning in ideas

Just as your IT team is drowning in data from all the system that they manage, this approach can literally drown the innovation team in ideas. As mentioned, Dell’s IdeaStorm has over 9,000 ideas, and a well run, one or two week idea campaign can easily generate several hundred on one topic. Talk about finding a needle in a haystack! Then consider the time necessary to review and process those ideas. Assume for a second that each idea requires between five and ten minutes for a person to review and decide to move forward with, request more information or kill. 9,000 ideas at 5 minutes each (an underestimate) is 45,000 minutes or 750 hours – almost a third of a man-year just dedicated to a quick review of each idea. Then add in the fact that ideas from customers and partners need a legal review for IP ownership, and you’ll see that more ideas is not always the best answer.

A lack of workflow

Many social networking sites and forums don’t provide workflow or idea management beyond the capture of the idea and a simple voting or rating process. Idea capture is the easiest part of an innovation process, but the bottlenecks exist just downstream – effectively reviewing the ideas, evaluating them and transitioning them into new products or services or business models. Without an effective innovation process to manage the ideas after collection, innovation breaks down. Again, you’ve set the expectation that these ideas will be captured and reviewed. If not, the submitters will become frustrated and will refuse to submit ideas, and your innovation program and efforts will flounder.

Shallow ideas

A final concern with social networking and wisdom of crowds is that these programs primarily generate very incremental ideas, and since these approaches are very open, collaborative and web-based, they expose ideas to a large number of people. The larger the group, the more the thinking and ideas will revert to the mean. So you can’t expect really insightful or disruptive ideas from this approach, nor can you expect that the ideas you generate from this approach are uniquely yours. Your competitors are listening to and engaging your customer base just as frequently as you are, so broadly distributed idea platforms will result in ideas that have been seen and reviewed by a number of firms.

Not a solution in and of themselves

So, just like brainstorming does not equal innovation, but is an important tool or component for innovation, many of these new trends around innovation and social networking are not complete solutions. In fact, they may become great distractions.

Generating a huge number of ideas that are relatively incremental doesn’t add much to a firm’s ability to innovate or differentiate, and may become a huge distraction from real disruptive possibilities.

Recognize that innovation is a complex function and that every tool – brainstorming, social networking, innovation processes, creativity and a whole list of others – all play into a robust innovation capability and model. No one solution provides all the answers.

By Jeffrey Phillips

About the author

Jeffrey Phillips leads OVO Innovation, an innovation consulting company in Raleigh, North Carolina. Jeffrey has led strategy and innovation projects in a number of industries including pharmaceutical, high tech, financial services, insurance, medical products. He is the author of three books, including Relentless Innovation, and writes the popular Innovate on Purpose blog.