Monday, January 10, 2011

Creating an Innovation Community at U.S. Bank

One of the most pervasive myths about innovation is that it happens to isolated individuals who have a spark of creativity.  The story unfolds that through trial and tribulation, the lonely innovator overcomes obstacles and eventually creates a compelling new product.   While that story is entertaining, it is for the most part a fairy tale.   Most experienced innovators can tell you that that kind of innovation is the exception rather than the rule.

Good innovation requires the engagement and participation of a fair number of people, who fill a wide range of tasks.  From spotting trends and investigating customer needs to generating and evaluating ideas to prototyping and piloting ideas, there are many different roles and perspectives that are necessary.  More importantly, good ideas often originate at the intersection of a variety of industries, markets or perspectives, so a thriving innovation community strengthens and reinforces all facets of innovation.

The word “community” is unfortunately often misused, but in this context – an innovation community – the word is exceptionally accurate.  An innovation community is simply a group of people who are interconnected and who can freely collaborate, to share ideas, perspectives and concepts.    Just as tools like Facebook and LinkedIn enable social communities, innovators need physical and virtual communities to share ideas and information, exchange perspectives, identify trends and reinforce the goals of innovation.  This is especially true in large, distributed organizations where innovators may be isolated from one another due to business lines, geographies or business function.  Too often good ideas languish because people who have them can’t connect with people who need them – even in the same firm. 

In far too many organizations, innovation teams work in small, isolated pockets, rarely interacting with their peers, much less other teams within the organization.  We believe this is a terrible mistake.  The exchange of ideas drives new engagement and reminds each individual in the community that they are part of an important, greater “whole”.  We humans weren’t made to live as hermits in isolation, and our innovation teams can only gain insights and skills as they network with other individuals and teams.

To that end I’m happy to write about one example of a firm using communities to further innovation goals.  Our client, U.S. Bank, has worked diligently over the last two years to improve their innovation skills by training many innovation “advocates” throughout the business and developing innovation teams across many business functions.  But more importantly, they are beginning to link these individuals into an innovation community that allows them to meet virtually, share ideas and needs, and extend their networks.  This innovation community is based on an IBM product called Connections.  The idea behind this community is to collapse the “social distance” between individual innovators across the organization and encourage interactions and collaboration.

The application is called US Book, and it looks and feels much like Facebook.  US Book has been rolled out to all 60,000+ employees of U.S. Bank.  Within US Book is an innovation community open to any innovation advocates or anyone interested in innovation.  Think of it as U.S. Bank’s  Facebook for innovators.  The application allows an individual to “tweet” about his or her actions and ideas, and for others to search for people with specific skills or knowledge.  Within the community the users can define interest groups – for example, people who are interested or active in trend spotting, scenario planning or other innovation techniques or capabilities.  Additionally, people can tag themselves and associate with others in a specific business offering (checking or savings for example), or market segment or geography.  These functions allow people within the community to find people who share a common interest or who have specific skills, and exchange ideas and collaborate far more effectively.

Within U.S. Bank a group called the Enterprise Revenue Office is actively seeding innovation programs, including innovation training for the innovation advocates, and developing innovation platforms like US Book and the innovation community.  The interaction within the community is already vibrant, and the community promises to spark many more ideas and simplify engagement across the bank.  I’ll plan another update on the progress of the innovation community in a few months to give you a sense of the outcomes and results from the community and how it is growing and changing over time. 

What’s your firm doing to sponsor innovation communities – not just innovators, or innovation teams?  Innovation is a difficult, risky proposition.  Demonstrating that there are other people who are engaged and interested in innovation, and who are willing to be part of an innovation community, reduces the risk, reduces the uncertainty and encourages better idea generation and more importantly, collaboration.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:13 AM


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