Social Networks in the Enterprise: 3M’s Innovation Process

When 3M wanted to expand the reach of its innovation process it deployed an internal social network to access all 75,000 global employees, bringing in hundreds of new ideas.

3M’s reputation for innovation is well established, but the company wanted to include more staff in the ideation process. Traditionally, access to the company's annual Markets of the Future brainstorming sessions was limited. By employing a new internal social networking platform, 3M was able to foster creativity and collaboration among all its employees around the world. In the two weeks the tool was open to employees, it attracted more than 1,200 people, who generated over 700 new ideas, which resulted in nine new markets for the company to explore.

The Situation: 3M’s Corporate Strategy group conducts an annual exercise to define future markets. The organization sought to broaden the scope of this process and challenge employees to focus on the future while the economy tried to correct itself. “Although not an easy task, leaders recognized that this was the ideal time to inject new fuel into the process for defining future markets,” says Barry Dayton, knowledge management strategist at 3M.

What They Did: 3M’s Corporate Knowledge Management group partnered with its Corporate Strategy and Corporate IT groups to deploy Enterprise 2.0 technology to expand and manage its innovation process. Access was open to all 75,000 global employees, and 1,239 people in 42 countries participated during the two-week idea-gathering period. For another four weeks, the 736 ideas generated were filtered into 26 market clusters. All told, the new process yielded nine potential future markets for 3M.

Why It Was Unique: The group dramatically broadened access to its innovation strategies and learned a new technology in an exceedingly short period. In only eight weeks, it was able to reach out to tens of thousands of global employees and identify multiple viable potential markets.

The Takeaway: The biggest benefit was that this new approach supported efforts to enhance employee engagement. Additionally, there’s now a strengthened partnership between the Corporate IT and Corporate Knowledge Management groups. The strategy also demonstrates 3M’s ongoing commitment to investing in its future.

Rick Swanborg is president of ICEX and a professor at Boston University.

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