Enabling Innovation through Social Technologies

This is a guest post by Chris Gibbons, a finalist undergraduate student at the University of Durham and has recently completed a research project exploring the value of social technologies in innovation with the Innovation Studio. Connect with him on twitter.

Stumbling across the Social Workplace Conference on Twitter this week has been my find of the week. It’s exactly this type of finding which makes social media so worthwhile. I’ve found SWConf, I’ve interacted with Vic Okezie and now I’ve been given this great opportunity to share and interact with you. But how does this value translate into the workplace?

Having recently completed a piece of research exploring the enabling role of social technologies in innovation, it’s a question I’ve pondered extensively over the last year or so. Luckily, I’ve been able to answer it.

The research project explored how two global professional services organisations, a leading global oil and gas producer and a consumer goods business use social technologies in innovation. Although each approached the practice of innovation in different ways, similar broad themes were found in the value of social technologies:

Social technologies give innovation a voice. This is important. Innovation can often become a buzzword within organisations, an elusive state to strive towards, but social technologies provide a voice giving innovation a visible presence. The technologies can be used by innovation teams to set challenges and secure innovation in the forefront of people’s minds in their everyday activity.

Social technologies open up innovation. Innovation doesn’t just happen in Research and Development. Okay, maybe it never has, but by opening up access to an organisation’s innovation activity the whole organisation and beyond can get involved. The fact is we’re better at innovating than we think and, in general, it appears we love to feel part of and engaged in paving our organisations’ futures; social technologies facilitate that engagement.

Social technologies harness the wisdom of crowds. Yes, it’s okay having engagement, but how about we do something with it? Precisely. Although the study showed that a number of us are happy to stand by and watch the innovation activity, which is fine, others truly engaged in it. Social technologies allow us to find, interact with and share knowledge across organisational boundaries; pulling in a wide and diverse range of knowledge into the innovation effort. Numerous studies have shown the value of diverse knowledge streams in solving business problems and innovation, and it was clearly visible in the participant organisations.

It’s also useful to point out here that in enabling conversations across departments and business units, innovation starts to happen less formally. We must remember that innovation isn’t just new shiny products, it might be practices used in one part of an organisation applied in a new context; this was especially true in the case of the professional services firms.

I understand many of you might be reading this now and thinking “Okay, it’s great having nice conversations and sharing knowledge but what about the financial value?”. You’d be right to ask this, but I have an answer. In giving access to innovation and building conversations around solving business problems and innovation, we start to see innovation creeping in as a key aspect of an organisation’s culture. Your people are much more able, and likely, to collaborate, to think and search outside of their department and as a result valuable innovations occur. If I told you that one of the research participants have seen a number of innovations valued at over $10m through enabling conversations inside and outside of the organisation, would that help to clarify the significant value that social technologies hold?

I’m extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the Social Workplace Conference . It’s great to see the momentum of interest in social technologies in the workplace building up and Crexia bringing some of the leading practitioners and thinkers from the field together at SWConf12. The conference agenda is the best I’ve seen yet and provides a real opportunity to be part of an exciting emerging area of workplace technology. I’m very much looking forward to meeting the speakers and delegates to continue to learn and share experiences of social technology use in organisations. Hopefully see you soon!