Are you effectively using the creative potential of your employees, customers and partners to address your innovation challenges? Collaborative idea management is a method to learn from the “wisdom of the crowd” in order to drive innovation. This in-depth article gives you an introduction including best practice from how Ericsson, the global telecom company worked with introducing and designing a successful collaborative idea management system.

Many organizations are facing an urgent need to exploit new ideas and opportunities to meet increasing competitive pressure and changing customer demands. The recent economic recession has further accelerated the urgency of innovation across industries and globally. But from where do you get those much needed breakthrough ideas to drive growth, productivity and value creation? When innovation is more important than ever, collaborative idea management can help organizations to surface new ideas, improve them and make sure they reach the right people. It is also a way to empower and recognize innovative employees, to measure and stimulate creative activity and to promote a more open and collaborative innovation culture in the organization.

What is idea management?

Idea management is a structured process for the collection, handling, selection and distribution of ideas. It may include support for gathering, storing, improving, evaluating and prioritizing ideas by providing methods and tools, such as templates and guidelines. Idea management is an integrated part of the innovation process. Idea management is relevant for all types of ideas, from incremental improvements to new and disruptive business opportunities. The scope can range from being limited to one internal unit, to cover the entire organization, to include also external stakeholders, such as customers and partners. Some companies that have implemented idea management systems are IBM, Accenture and Whirlpool. Ericsson started collaborative idea management in 2008 by developing a generic solution aligned with the existing collaboration platform and strategy.

Addressing challenges

The handling of ideas in organizations involves several challenges. First, the more people you engage the more difficult it gets to evaluate and give feedback on all the ideas. You need an alternative to channeling all idea through one central point that quickly gets choked. Second, larger organizations typically have numerous and diverse innovation needs throughout the organization. Defining the innovation needs is a critical success factor to focus idea management efforts on the relevant themes and challenges. But how do you channel the right ideas to the right places when the landscape of innovation needs is not easily defined top down? Third, for an idea management system to be sustainable you need to look beyond an IT solution. You need an infrastructure with guidelines and processes that is integrated with the overall innovation and collaboration efforts and aligned with organizational culture. That is easier said than done! A fourth challenge is to engage employees to come up with new ideas and to contribute them. In a recent blog post, Hutch Carpenter argues that employees are intrinsically motivated to come up with new ideas. Every day, employees think of ideas relevant to the organization. It is just happening as a part of their daily work. The challenge for organizations is to harness these motivations and provide an outlet for them. Finally, organizations must ensure that their collaborative idea management initiatives actually deliver on the “wisdom of the crowd” promise. If the perception is that you just get more mediocre ideas, the effort will not be long-lived.

Designing a system

The basic components of collaborative idea management is support for users to submit new ideas, comment and develop already existing ones as well as support for managers to capture, track and further develop promising ideas. Finally you need support to administrate, measure and follow-up. The following design rules, based on the initial experience at Ericsson and insights from other organizations, might help when considering getting serious about idea management.

  1. Invite everyone to engage the entire organization. Several studies show that employees are the number one source of innovative ideas.
  2. Use the principle of self-organization to handle complexity. Let innovation needs be defined bottom-up and use the IT tool to match idea supply and demand.
  3. Embrace collaboration to leverage expertise and a diversity of perspectives. Openness will enable users from different parts of the organization to improve and comment on ideas.
  4. Secure feedback and recognition for a sustainable initiative. Make sure idea owners can see everything what is happening to their ideas. Reward good ideas.
  5. Integrate idea management into your overall collaboration effort. Benefits are a connected workflow, unified user interface and simplified support.

Release the creativity

It makes sense to try to utilize the collective creativity of all employees and even include external stakeholders to generate those much needed breakthrough ideas. Under the right conditions, a collaborative idea management system of tools and practices can help you to do just that. Tapping into the innovation energy of employees, customers and partners might improve your ability to respond to what emerges, find differentiating opportunities, drive a culture of collaboration and innovation, and create a sense that every employee contribution is important for the future of the organization. By Karin Wall, chief editor

Further reading

The article Collaborative Idea Management – using the creativity of crowds to drive innovation is written by Magnus Karlsson, Director New Business Development & Innovation at Ericsson Head­quarters in Stockholm, Sweden. The article discusses an approach to collabora­tive idea management based on the initial experience by Ericsson and insights from other organizations. The article will enable you to:

  • get a basic understanding of both the problems and solutions connected to collaborative idea management
  • achieve more constructive and higher quality management team discussion by providing a common ground and a common language about preparing for collaborative idea management
  • better reflect on the structure of your company and take action to create an environment that supports collab­orative idea management
  • prepare for the challenges, and avoid repeating the mistakes of others
  • identify the vital steps that needs to be considered when designing and implementing a collaborative idea man­agement system.

About the author

Magnus KarlssonMagnus Karlsson is Director New Business Development & Innovation at Ericsson Head­quarters in Stockholm, Sweden. He joined Ericsson in 1998 and has been working in the areas of external research relations, strategic foresight and innovation manage­ment. Recently, he was driving the Group-wide scenario planning project Commu­nicating Worlds 2020.

Between 2003 and 2006 he served as Science & Technology Counselor at the Embas­sy of Sweden in Washington D.C. responsible for policy and technology intelligence. In a previous foreign assignment, he worked at the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Sweden in Tokyo, Japan.

He has two basic academic degrees in Applied Physics and International Relations as well as a Ph.D. degree in Technology and Social Change from Linköping University, Sweden.