Magazine Article | April 5, 2010

Building An Interactive Community Focused On Innovation

Source: Life Science Leader

By Nancy Morales-Adams and Valerie Opher

As the mandatory training on innovation via employee engagement came to a close, the employees clapped as if on cue. Was the applause because the training was over, or was it because employees were ready to become engaged and embrace change?

Like some other senior leadership mandates, new concepts driven by exploratory processes often result in reluctant inclusion and conformity rather than acceptance and the desire to be engaged in processes. How do we, as business professionals, own the engagement process that may lead to opportunities for innovation?

The process of innovation may appear to be an individualized activity, but the collective creativity associated with the concept in a corporate environment may lead to growth for businesses as well as the employees. The will to generate ideas and share them with one’s employer is often challenging; the innovative process may or may not be recognized or rewarded. So, the desire to share in generating innovative ideas for corporate use may require some investment in aspects of employee engagement via the building of interactive communities at work.

As noted in an FDA Webview article entitled Future Success Lies in Innovation, Not Marketing, it is clear that there is a need for new business models that focus on innovation. It is also clear in listening to pharmaceutical executives during the last six months that the importance of innovation for the industry as a whole is being emphasized. Not only are pharmaceuticals and other industries in need of innovative models, they are also in need of innovation with regard to processes or new ways to do things within their organizations that can bring efficiency. The question for pharmaceutical and other organizations becomes “how can we gather the best ideas from employees from all levels and locations within the organization?”

Companies can no longer rely purely on the top levels of the organization in order to innovate. Employees of the organization most likely have a number of innovative solutions to problems that are being faced by areas, departments, and the organization as a whole. Organizations need to look within in order to renew the business. This is known as “internally focused innovation” (Palmer, 2009). Gathering the ideas of employees can touch upon and generate a great deal of knowledge know-how that can be shared and examined. For large and global companies, it can be difficult to gather information from disparate locations. Surveys can be useful but are somewhat one- dimensional. For many organizations the answer has been the building of interactive communities where employees can place ideas, and the ideas can become innovative processes or products.

Key Points To Follow
Below are suggestions as to how to ensure that the building of the interactive community is successful:

1. Appoint an Innovation Evangelist. The role will be the face and voice of innovation. The importance of the role cannot be minimized. The Innovation Evangelist must not only be open to change but be extremely enthusiastic when it comes to change. The Evangelist will be the person responsible for moving and nurturing the innovation program throughout the organization and ensuring that it does not wither away.

2. An Evangelist is necessary but not enough. A council or committee needs to be appointed in order to assist in deciding upon the tool, governance, and handling of ideas generated. Participants should be from all areas, levels, and locations of the organization.

3. Decide upon a tool. The importance of the tool that is used in order to capture the ideas from employees is also important. Will anyone be able to post ideas, or will only employees be able to post ideas? Will a firewall be required? What size system do we need? Is it just a blog? Will ideas be responded to in real time, or will an asynchronistic environment be enough?

4. Decide upon the governance. The policies and rules will be the foundation of the Idea Generation project. Clear guidelines that cover all aspects of the innovation idea generation model must be clear. It is important to clearly state:

a. Who can add ideas?
b. Will the ideas be categorized?
c. Will the idea be voted on by the idea-generating community?
d. How is the quality of the idea decided?
e. How does the idea move forward to become a proof of concept?
f. Will some ideas be rejected, and how will this occur?
g. Will the idea enter different stages?
h. Who will review and select the best ideas?
i. Will the idea be captured with predefined criteria, or will posing an idea be free-flowing?
j. What will you do when employees do not engage within the interactive community?

5. Gaining participation in the innovation idea generation arena can be difficult. Thought should be given to providing each employee with a performance plan objective that they provide at least three ideas each year within the idea-generating tool. Rewards for the ideas that move forward can and should be clear before moving in this direction. Will the person who generated the idea that will move forward be allowed to champion the idea within the organization?

6. Be prepared for ideas that cannot move forward. For instance, one idea that may be posed by an employee is that each employee be allowed 20 hours a year to volunteer within charity organizations. Another example idea may be the suggestion that employees work from home instead of in the brick-and-mortar building.

7. Communication. Once the above steps have been covered, it is important to communicate with the idea generation community as much as possible. The need for change and innovative process or products may be the basis for a viable company. The importance of the innovation idea community must be communicated.

8. Caution: It is important not to reject or dismiss ideas which may have been tried in the organization beforehand. With new challenges and greater support, the idea may have reached a period where it may actually work. It is also important not to dash the enthusiasm of participants by advising them that the company already has a way of doing what is being suggested. It may be that the idea may hold some merit.

An innovation idea-generating interactive community within an organization will require some degree of employee engagement as a way to help gather and rate innovative ideas. In the process of developing the innovative communities within an organization, there is a need to remain cognizant of the individualistic as well as the collective behavioral processes. For instance, the individual process may offer insights into actions and behaviors that offer opportunities for groupthink within teams or throughout departments; this may influence the level of employee engagement and further shape the innovative culture. In contrast, the collective processes may appear to support the organization’s efforts to engage employees, but may adversely affect perceptions of inclusion. How idea generation within an environment is organized from the onset can determine whether it will be successful or just fade away.

About the Authors
Valerie Opher, B.S.N., R.N., M.A.S., D.M., has over 25 years experience in healthcare and is currently employed as a senior regional scientific manager focusing on cardiology at a major pharmaceutical company. In her current role, Dr. Opher provides scientific, educational, and clinical support to physicians and other healthcare professionals.

Nancy Morales-Adams, M.B.A., D.M., is employed as a senior business analyst in the pharmaceutical industry. She has over 10 years experience in the pharmaceutical business and numerous years of experience in the corporate sector. She is also an adjunct professor for Argosy University where she teaches master-level business courses.