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Graybar is a Fortune 500 corporation and one of the largest employee-owned companies in North America. They are a leader in the distribution of communications and data networking products – even if you don’t know Graybar off the top of your head, you’ve probably been in contact with their products.

They have 290 North American distribution facilities, nearly 9,000 employees, and the company is over 150 years old. Many companies that have been around for that long struggle to keep up, but Graybar has always reinvented itself and that’s where their dedicated innovation lab comes in.

Graybar’s innovation lab is a place where students and faculty from the University of Illinois help Graybar test new concepts and develop new digital capabilities. It sits in Research Park alongside other Fortune 500 innovation labs and up-and-coming startups. The students who help test and develop new concepts bring fresh thinking to Graybar projects, and those students also get a window into Graybar and the wholesale distribution industry.

The goal of the lab is not for the students to come up with the ideas all on their own; the lab exists to find  new ideas for products, offerings, and improvements that come from their entire workforce. When the lab was launched, VP and CIO Dave Meyer said, “While the iLab serves as a vehicle to research, test and develop our ideas, it is up to everyone to come up with ideas for new solutions and ways to improve our business.”

In order to do that, the Graybar Innovation Program invites all employees to share their ideas for ways to incrementally or radically improve the business through their crowdsourcing platform. Employees can engage with their other teammates, read success stories, and see what’s already working in other parts of the organization. The ideas are vetted by a cross-functional innovation council that selects promising ideas and helps to find resources.

One of the challenges is shifting the entire 9,000 employee mindset from continuous improvement to more transformative change. Sometimes, it’s easier to see the opportunities that would make things faster, cheaper, or more efficient  than it is to envision totally new blue ocean opportunities. However, when talking to the Director of Graybar’s Innovation Lab, Todd Hart, he stated that continuing to deliver on ideas to help build program faith and training the workforce over time will help build this competency the way that those who visit the gym regularly build their muscles. Innovation, after all, is a practice… not a destination.

To learn more about how Graybar organizes creative thinking at their innovation lab, listen to the full podcast interview on IdeaScale Nation.

About the Author

Rob Hoehn is the co-founder and CEO of IdeaScale: the largest open innovation software platform in the world. Hoehn launched crowdsourcing software as part of the open government initiative and IdeaScale’s robust portfolio now includes many other industry notables, such as EA Sports, NBC, NASA, Xerox and many others. Prior to IdeaScale, Hoehn was Vice President of Client Services at Survey Analytics.

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