Practitioners in each new field emerge to explore its early, exciting promise, reconciling that potential with the results they achieve in reality. The rapidly emerging and rapidly evolving field of collaborative innovation is no different in this regard. In this article Doug Collins shares his perspective on the current state of affairs in terms of where the field stands, relative to the claims made on its behalf.

The Vulcan Mind Meld, Revisited

Those of us of a certain age can recall a time, roughly a decade ago, when knowledge management metastasized from a promising, positive concept to something bizarre and sinister, before receding from our collective consciousness.

In the early days of knowledge management, the idea that animated the field held great promise. What if organizations could gain fuller access to the gifts—the experience and insights—that people brought to the table? Many delighted in asking rhetorically, “What if our organization knew what our organization knew?”

Later, towards the end of that period’s economic gold rush when people exchanged their Aeron chairs for barstools, knowledge management took on its more sinister form. People suspected that their organization aspired to perform the modern equivalent of the Vulcan mind meld before cutting them loose from their jobs. Tell me what you know before your go.

Fast forward to today. Does collaborative innovation hold the seeds of its own destruction, teetering as a daft descendant of the erstwhile knowledge management clan?

In this article I share my perspective based on my observations from having worked on the ground with dozens of clients. By collaborative innovation I mean the practice of inviting a community of people to reflect and share their perspectives on the possibilities they see in resolving a critical question facing the group. The mechanics of collaborative innovation involve developing virtual communities that apply the latest approaches to social media and cross-fertilizing this form of remote engagement with facilitated, in-person gatherings to help the group reach a shared understanding on the way forward.

Promises, Promises

To explore the question of whether our reach exceeds our grasp, I examine the claims that the field of collaborative innovation makes today. Let’s compare them with reality—with the ground truth we observe with firms who embrace the practice of collaborative innovation as a way to help their organization realize their potential by engaging the gifts that their people bring to the table. Then, let’s consider: Do we have to struggle too hard to reconcile promise with reality? Any Vulcan mind melds on the horizon?

I distill the arguments that advocates for collaborative innovation make for the practice into the following two claims.

Claim One: Better Results for the Organization

First, organizations achieve more compelling results—and improved, overall performance, ultimately—by exposing the critical challenges facing the organization to the widest, most diverse pool of people for their perspective.

In other words, good ideas can and do come from anywhere. However, that truism does you no good if you have no means of engaging everyone without bankrupting the organization in attempting to reach them. This claim appeals to organizations that have distributed their people globally to serve their clients or consumers, for example. The cost of putting someone on a plane from Shanghai to New York deters in-person collaboration.

Claim Two: Deeper Engagement within the Community

Second, the people who toil in an organization commit themselves to its charter—to the success of the organization—when they feel that their organization in turn invites them to create a shared vision around that charter.

Practically, their practice of collaborative innovation makes them active participants in shaping the organization’s vision to the extent that the organization reflects the promise of the ideas and incumbent ideals it chooses to pursue. The practice of collaborative innovation may, in turn, open doors and expands vistas for people who find themselves pigeon-holed in a role.

The Ground Truth Reality

What does my experience suggest? I respond by claim (figure 1).

Figure 1: mapping the claims of collaborative innovation with reality

Better Results and Removing Barriers to Engage on the Critical Question

With respect to the first claim, yes, I do observe organizations improving their results through the practice of collaborative innovation. I see organizations advancing their business as they embrace and implement the ideas that their community contributes.

Further, I find that the value that organizations derive from this practice depends largely on the care with which they form the invitation to the community (What is the critical question?), with which they identify its members (Do we have a truly diverse membership?), and with which they negotiate commitments between the sponsors and the members (What opportunity do I have to pursue my idea?). The technologies and approaches to group facilitation that power collaborative innovation, such as gaming, reputation building, and conventions such as the World Café model, can then effectively support the outcomes that the sponsor envisions.

I also observe another compelling aspect to this claim that the industry fails to date to embrace as part of its promise: The practice of collaborative innovation gives the sponsors a safe space to pose the critical questions and to consider the ideas contributed in kind that they may well have considered in the past, but deferred or neglected pursuing because the pursuit would take them into uncomfortable territory—one where they would find themselves reluctantly goring a senior colleague’s ox.

Ideas can compel by their unambiguous novelty. More often they compel because they challenge the organization to reflect on long-held, protected beliefs.

One challenge, in particular, comes to mind. The client’s sponsor invited the community to share their perspectives on how they might capture a greater share of their customer’s wallet. The sponsors anticipated the members to pull well-worn levers in that organization: product extensions and channel expansions, for example.

Instead, the bulk of the ideas submitted centered on the need for the organization to tell its story in more compelling ways. The community members observed that the organization could improve by marketing what the breadth of its offer to its existing clients. They reflected, for example, on their experiences with clients who professed genuine ignorance of the organization’s full offer.

The community, in a powerful way, enabled senior members of that organization to explore what had been a sensitive topic: the reservations they had in developing and relying on a more robust, capable marketing function to grow the business. The marketing ideas were not novel. The idea that the organization should rely more on marketing to achieve their goals was, in this context, highly innovative. What possibilities open if we develop the function to help its members realize their potential?

Collaborative innovation can empower the sponsors as much as the community.

Deeper Engagement for Those Who Choose It

With respect to the second claim, yes, I do observe community members engaging more deeply with the organization as they engage in the practice of collaborative innovation. I repeatedly observe the sponsors of innovation challenges expressing genuine surprise and delight at the quality and thoughtfulness of the ideas that members contribute. I have yet to hear a challenge sponsor lament that they engaged their community. Their engagement persists to the extent to which the sponsor in turn keeps their commitment to the community.

I have yet to hear a challenge sponsor lament that they engaged their community.

I also observe another reality associated with this claim. The practice of collaborative innovation delineates the community into two camps. One camp, when invited to participate, instinctively responds by asking whether innovation is part of their day job. They see the invitation as another item on their already long list of things to do. They may also reflect on a time when they put forth an idea and received disrespectfully negative feedback, causing them to defer participating.

The second camp, when invited, instinctively responds by embracing the practice as a means of pursuing the vocation they have already chosen to master.

I observed one client, a chemist, who had already committed herself to mastering a branch of the science, applying collaborative innovation to expose her thinking on the subject to a larger community—specifically, to her colleagues working on another continent. She saw the potential that collaborative innovation represented for helping her to expand her own thinking. She had no reservations about inviting colleagues to a community that she designed.

Some in the industry claim that the practice of collaborative innovation helps the organization transform people in the former camp into happy, card-carrying members of the latter camp. I disagree. My experience suggests that extending this claim in this manner represents a bridge too far—or, like the Brooklyn Bridge, one that takes an exceedingly long time to build. Rather, reality suggests that collaborative innovation reveals the mindset that each community member has already embraced in their approach to work.

The State of the Practice

I am much more sanguine about the promise that collaborative innovation holds for organizations and the people who toil within them than I was about knowledge management at the time that that concept was in full, bizarre bloom.

The big difference that I see between the two is that, whereas knowledge management at a fundamental level treated people as a docile, walking store of tacit insights, collaborative innovation assumes and requires their active participation. The clearer the call to action around the critical question, the greater the level of participation. By contrast, clients struggle to gain traction when they sponsor open forums—or forms of open innovation not tied to specific challenges facing the organization. Community members that I have questioned tell me that they prefer having some guidance or that they remain wary of being the first to jump into the deep end at the first pool party of the season.

The second big difference that I see is that the industry has advanced its claims with a reasonable amount of sobriety and prudence. The capabilities that now come with collaborative innovation—the ability to turn ideation challenges into games and the ability for members to build reputations—engage the imaginations of the sponsoring clients. At the same time, I witness an understanding that translating an engaging virtual environment into results means thinking through the critical elements of the question, the community, and the commitment—attributes that the capabilities can support, but not magically produce, on their own. Challenge any claim that the practice of collaborative innovation can substitute for the discretion that people exercise today in managing an organization to objectives as a bridge too far.

By Doug Collins

About the Author:

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He has served in a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. He today works at Spigit, Inc., where he consults with Fortune 1000 clients on realizing their vision for achieving leadership in innovation by applying social media and ideation markets in blended virtual and in-person communities.

Previously, Doug formed and led a variety of front end initiatives, including executive advisory programs for industry influencers, early adopter programs for lead users, corporate strategic planning, and structured explorations of new market and product opportunities. Before joining Spigit, Doug worked at Harris Corporation and at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation which is now part of Siemens Corporation.