by Rob Koplowitz

How Social Technologies Can Kickstart Innovation

Sep 16, 2010
InnovationSocial Networking Apps

Today's Web 2.0 technologies foster collaboration and ignite business innovation, Forrester Research says. Are you helping move your company toward a "need to share" culture?

The collaboration landscape is no longer about isolated groups of people that work together to complete a specific job. Today, enterprise collaboration extends more broadly across the organization, encouraging partnerships across teams that might not have previously worked together. What’s the reason behind this shift?

It stems from social technologies in the workforce, converting companies from a “need to know” environment to a “need to share” culture that promotes an open collaboration approach where sharing is the norm and information control is at the discretion of the individual.

This shift toward increased collaboration is apparent, even as enterprises emerge from the economic downturn. In fact, 65% of organizations now support at least one Web 2.0 technology for internal or external collaboration and communication purposes. You might wonder why these enterprises are responding to the downturn in a counterintuitive way. It’s because firms are thinking beyond the recession and looking to grab long-term competitive advantage in the market. They want to find, fund, and reward new ideas that will move the company in a new direction to gain greater market share and earn larger profits.

These new ideas will start to become the reality (and in some cases already have) as the Millennials enter the workforce. These digital natives bring with them a technology fluency that Baby Boomers simply don’t have, introducing new norms for how to manage time and accomplish tasks. They wield social and real-time communication tools to influence their peers and the world around them, helping to amplify the conversations employees have every day. This is great news for firms looking to enhance their innovation strategies. As firms move toward greater levels of sharing as part of embracing the changing workforce and the wide availability of social software platforms designed for business, the drive for innovation within the organization starts to naturally occur.

Forrester’s current working definition of Web 2.0 helps to shed some light on the connection between innovation and the larger trend toward enterprise 2.0 and the emerging social enterprise:

Web 2.0 is a set of technologies and applications that enable efficient interaction among people, content, and data in support of collectively fostering new businesses, technology offerings, and social structures.

The first half of the definition represents long-standing goals for any good content and collaboration professional. But the second half is quite new, very disruptive, and incredibly powerful. Many firms see Web 2.0 technologies like blogs, wikis, and social networks as tactical because they help workers capture and share knowledge, manage projects, and drive improved corporate communications. Yet, some organizations apply these tools to drive very high-level strategic goals—24% of organizations use Web 2.0 tools to help foster innovation.

In the coming months, we can expect to see Web 2.0 technology playing an even more vital role in fostering innovation. Why? Because the most successful innovation programs are:

Visible: People are more likely to participate in innovation initiatives that are well publicized and transparent and Web 2.0 tools allow people to ask questions, share ideas, and discover what people outside of one small piece of the corporate hierarchy are doing.

Respectful: Web 2.0 tools support real-time and ongoing dialogue that is conversational, free of red tape, and representative of different points of view.

Inclusive: Web 2.0 tools help break down organizational and cultural barriers such as time differences. They work well in a decentralized multinational corporation that seeks to cultivate a so-called “Innovation Network” of employees, vendors, partners, and customers.

But most importantly, social tools promote open collaboration that encourages the sharing of ideas which might not have been possible without them. This approach can set the innovation pipeline process in motion.

Large businesses are responding to the perfect storm of economic, social, and technological change by creating innovation centers. 76% of enterprise IT professionals made increasing capacity for innovation a critical or high priority for their organization in 2010. In many cases, innovation centers, both physical and virtual, are based within IT with a dedicated executive leading the initiative. The alignment between the head of innovation and C-level executives is critical as it provides the innovation team with tangible goals and fights the misconception that innovation is about brainstorming all day without accountability.

Take Southwest Airlines as an example of a company dedicated to embracing innovation initiatives. Southwest is no stranger to innovation. A pioneer in profitable, customer-service-oriented business travel for a low price, they’ve thrived in some very challenging times for the airline industry. When Forrester asked nearly 4,600 consumers about their interactions with a variety of companies, based on usefulness, usability, and enjoyability of the experience, Southwest was the top ranked of seven large airlines. So how do they plan to maintain that edge in a competitive market?

The company invested in an innovation initiative using Spigit’s enterprise offering—a software platform for capturing, sharing, and rating ideas. By harnessing the creative and motivated workforce, Southwest recognized the opportunity to break out and drive new and unexpected areas for improvement. According to the head of innovation initiatives, Southwest’s innovation program helps the company in two ways: 1) initiatives that lower costs and improve customer service directly drive a better customer experience; and 2) by reaching out to the broad Southwest employee base, they not only have more and potentially better ideas, they also provide the employees with more power to contribute to the success of the company.

Southwest’s innovation program highlights the cultural shift to a “need to share” organization that embraces social technologies to fuel innovative breakthroughs. Although not all organizations are ready to make this transition, there are some best practices to consider when working toward a successful social and, as a result, enterprise innovation program. It will be essential to have executive support to coordinate communication from the top, while still keeping the idea generators involved throughout the entire process. Above all else, the organization needs to be ready for an innovation initiative to avoid an early launch that will see little benefit. I’ll be speaking at Forrester’s Content & Collaboration Forum this September, where I’ll help chart the path to a successful enterprise social strategy—hope to see you there.

Rob Koplowitz is a Principal Analyst at Forrester Research. He will be presenting at Forrester’s Content & Collaboration Forum in Washington DC on October 7-8.

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