By: Enno Scholz
The success of an organization’s idea management program is at the mercy of its supporters – the employees. The innovation team and top management must effectively communicate their goals to employees so they understand what’s expected of them and feel confident that their ideas will be taken seriously. Enno Scholz walks us through this communication process.
Communication is one of the most overlooked areas of establishing Idea Management programs.
Given the initiative is new to most companies; many of them choose to implement a software platform on a modest, small scale with a tight focus. Sadly this approach causes issues down the line. By definition, pilots or trials don’t receive the investment and support of more established programs, “let’s see what happens first” is a common opinion, but the under-investment makes it difficult for significant change to happen. In my experience, the main element that’s overlooked in this approach is communications.
The relative success or failure of Idea Management depends on employees ‘buying in’ to what the organization is trying to achieve, irrespective of scale. So here we have a puzzle:
- Do we invest communications resources to support an initial implementation, whilst we’re still testing the principles of a new way of working?
- Or, do we keep investment of our people to a minimum, even though this risks the potential success of something we’d like to see work?
There’s an argument to say, do something properly, or not at all; and effective communications is a critical part of doing idea management properly.
For any individual to participate, sharing ideas and collaborating with others, a few things need to be ticked off in their minds:
We need to build a communications plan, irrespective of scale, to ensure everyone knows what is happening.
- This is a good use of my time
- I’m allowed to do this and spend a little time away from the day job
- My boss wants me to do this
- I feel confident that people will take me seriously
- I know that my idea will be considered effectively
- I won’t have to wait for years to find out what happened to my idea
There is no short cut to addressing these issues, so we need to build a communications plan, irrespective of scale, to ensure everyone knows what is happening.
Many organizations consider implementing a new Idea Management system as simply an IT process; those who’ve investigated further will understand that software is simply an enabler to a new or expanding process. Like all processes, we need to ensure that our employees understand them, their role within them, and what’s expected of them.
Can’t we live without formal Communications?
In many cases, employees can be anxious about the level of change and uncertainty that innovation can bring. The correct communications strategy must be offered by management to reduce the fear of change within employees and encourage them to identify with the challenges of management.
Unless it’s explicitly clear that they are allowed to spend time helping others with their innovation initiatives, many employees won’t participate. Some organizations ask their employees to record all time spent on each activity during the day, so unless people understand they are allowed to do something different – they won’t.
Communications need to change depending on maturity
An organization that‘s just starting down the path of large scale collaborative innovation will need to advertise and raise awareness differently from an organization with an established program. To start with, we simply need to make employees aware that they can, and we want them to, work in a different way. Supporting them and their innovative ideas is a new way of working and it’s for everyone’s benefit.
Often it’s best to consider Idea Management to be a “start-up” within your organization and to use a range of communication channels to raise awareness and make the approach successful.
What happens without Communications?
It seems obvious that if you launch something new, that no one is aware of, it will fail. But telling people a new process or system is available isn’t enough.
Companies alert their employees to idea management by sending emails, yet may find that employees don’t participate, the reason? They’re busy, and although they may appreciate the value of what the innovation team is looking to do, they’re still not convinced that their idea will be taken seriously by the person responsible.
Employees want a real connection between the company needs and their idea.
The next step is to have a senior director endorse the approach, stating that it’s important for the future of the company and everyone should take the time out to help. Yet still people aren’t as engaged as we’d like them to be, what now?
Employees want a real connection between the company needs and their idea. They ask themselves what will happen next, who will own it, when they’ll hear about the status and how they can stay involved.
Advertising and support from management are critical but the best performing organizations also address the behaviors they’re expecting, next steps and what employees should expect moving forward.
An example of communications from our client: Vestas
Vestas is a world leader in wind energy. What’s really interesting about how Vestas established its program is the level of corporate support it received from management.
The core, centralized management of the company played a leading role in promoting the new idea management process. Not only was budget put aside to fund new concepts proposed by employees, but management also helped advertise the initiative using videos to inform the employees that they were keen for everyone to take part.
It may sound obvious that the support of senior management will be helpful, but many initiatives start within a division or country and are locally supported as opposed to being supported from the top level management.
A wider communications plan and high-level support will accelerate adoption.
This approach is often suitable at first and in many cases speeds up putting a formal process in place. But once you’re looking to expand the initiative, or you need other departments to help develop ideas for implementation, a wider communications plan and high-level support will accelerate adoption.
The results of the employees being made aware of the centralized support are clear, usage of the system went from 450 to 1300 people, generating over 1,000 ideas with 32 already included in concepts. This demonstrates great belief from the users that Vestas is serious about innovation and they are now putting ideas forward with serious value and in-line with the opportunities the company is prepared to fund.
Preparing to communicate
Having very high-level support for your initiative has a number of benefits when it comes to communications:
- Firstly, central support makes it easier to develop a unique brand and recognition incentives for the program as a whole. Creating a buzz for the initiative by having funds for resources such as time from corporate communications, t-shirts, and other incentives, is often helpful in the early stages.
- Secondly, it’s much easier to get employees engaged in the process if, like anything, the employees feel that the process is being taken seriously, has funding, and will deal with the participants in a sensible way. The other concern many potential participants often have is whether they’re ‘allowed’ to spend time on another division’s ideas or challenges; being made aware that the program has top level corporate support again can mitigate this.
- Finally, funding new ideas or concepts is always going to be more straightforward if the supporters of the program already accept that new things may require new budget. Putting budget aside, and telling the invitees there’s money available, will again increase their confidence that their good ideas will be taken seriously (or their contribution to someone else’s idea) and may be taken forward. Therefore they’re much happier to take part.
Give the Idea Management area a separate identity. Develop a brand and messages for your innovation activities – The brand helps create a clear link to the company, yet also stands for something new. Develop a language and visual themes that embody the message of Idea Management to ensure they’re consistent through all your campaign media.
2. Traditional advertising
Take advantage of traditional advertising channels such as posters, e-cards, t-shirts, etc. to draw attention to Idea Management. Establish Idea Management as an independent brand within the company by using a visual theme, color and style. The visual theme, color and style of your Idea Management software should reflect your innovation activities.
3. Other communications ideas
The first campaign or launch of an innovation challenge requires regular reminders and something that helps stick in employees minds. Consider a flyer desk drop to all invited employees, an advertisement that is put on their desk before they arrive in the morning as a key reminder to participate.
Some organizations take a viral approach to marketing, releasing video teasers in advance. They don’t make it clear straight away what’s coming, but slowly reveal the new initiatives and why they’re so important for the company. By the time the program is ready to launch, the employees are excited and very keen to participate.
As more and more initiatives are running through an Idea Management system, it’s important that each campaign invites the right people at the right time and that the audience is reminded to participate for the duration that it’s open.
Communicate the outcomes of each program and initiative, ensure that everyone knows that this new approach has value; those that hold back during early stages are often just waiting to see if others take it seriously before committing their own time.
It’s less necessary to run large communications events when everyone’s aware of the process and the value of participating. However, you may want to consider supporting large one off campaigns with similar strategies to those for early stage programs to create a buzz and encourage those that may have previously not participated.
By Enno Scholz (CEO HYPE Softwaretechnik GmbH)
About the author:
Enno Scholz holds an MSc in Computer Science from the Technical University of Berlin and a PhD in Software Engineering from Freie Universität Berlin, where he was a fellow in the nationally funded doctorate program “Communication-Based Systems”. After four years with Daimler Research in Berlin, Enno took the opportunity to found a spin-off, HYPE Softwaretechnik GmbH, in 2001. Today, HYPE is one of the leading providers of idea management software, with more than 140 installations worldwide, and supports global leaders like BASF, Bosch, General Electric, Nokia-Siemens, Procter & Gamble, and Roche, as well as many medium-sized companies, in managing the early stages of the innovation process.