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How to drive innovation in your workplace with an ESN

Steve Jobs once said “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”. A company that isn’t coming up with new ideas that respond to their customers’ needs is a company that is losing its cutting edge. Innovation at work does not happen automatically; it depends on a culture which supports the sharing and expression of good (and not so good) ideas and their development.

Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) can play an important role in encouraging the kind of environment where new ideas take root and grow. However, to understand how ESNs encourage innovation, we first need to understand how workplace innovation happens in the first place.

What is innovation?

You can’t simply force new ideas to happen; innovation is a slippery subject with no direct or one-size-fits-all solution. A lot of research has gone into understanding innovation as companies recognise the importance of developing new solutions and products. Nonetheless, it is possible to make new ideas more likely to arise and there are a number of ways this tends to come about.

It’s generally recognised that having a culture where there are no “right” ideas is essential. This isn’t to say innovation is a free for all, but that employees should feel they have the opportunity to express ideas or come up with inventions that go against the grain. If staff are afraid that their ideas will be mocked or shot down, they’ll be much less likely to put forward the ideas which might otherwise have revolutionised your field.

The research also shows that providing staff with the space to develop and work on new ideas is similarly important. Google’s Gmail, Google News and the Shuttle Buses which bring workers to the campus are all innovations that have arisen in the company’s famed 20% time, where engineers are encouraged to work on projects that interest them personally.

As the old adage goes, two heads are better than one, and much innovation comes from people with different perspectives and backgrounds sharing ideas and creating new answers to old questions.

So, where do ESNs come in here?

Studies have shown that there a wide range of business benefits from the adoption of ESNs, from loyalty to emotional wellbeing and reducing staff dissatisfaction and turnover. Thinking about innovation, ESNs can definitely be seen as tools to bring about the collaborative environment described above.

If managers want employees to feel their ideas can be heard and listened to, there’s a lot to be said for an ESN. Microblogs and Ideas Portals provide colleagues with a space to express their ideas, and for these to be discussed by their peers. Of course, not all of these ideas and discussions will end up being used, but of those which do have legs, ESN can help them run.

Without a workplace ESN, this kind of idea sharing is much less likely. Say a member of staff has an idea but doesn’t know how to take it further; their manager may not see its potential or their team may not have the expertise to give it the attention it needs. An Ideas Portal however would open up the suggestion to the whole organisation and allow anyone to comment, ‘like’ and take the idea further.

Virtual social networks have much in common with ‘real world’ networks, and ESNs capitalise upon the ability to make geographically disparate individuals feel connected. A Town Hall is a feature of ESNs which allow workers to pose questions to senior management and encourage transparency within organisations. It’s important to understand how new ideas take hold and spread within an organisation. Businesses which allow ideas to flow up and down the organisation will be more likely to develop new ideas, share a vision and successfully adopt innovations.

Not everyone is an expert, but making the R&D process transparent to all staff can really open up your organisation’s creative potential. ESNs allow users the flexibility to build groups which staff can follow and contribute to. R&D portals create the kinds of spaces where staff can comment, ask questions and develop solutions to problems. Once again, not every comment or questions will lead to a breakthrough, but making your organisation the kind of place where staff feel involved and able to contribute is crucial for idea generation and innovation.

Building an innovative environment

It’s an exciting time for ESNs and it’s really taking the traditional staff portal into a new paradigm. The opportunities of this platform for developing, diffusing and dynamizing fresh ideas are considerable and could drive forward innovation in your workplace.

While ESNs can’t promise to instantly provide you with the next iPod of Microsoft Office – you still need smart staff for that – if well used it can significantly contribute to the type of environment where those big ideas happen.

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Maximo Castagno

Maximo Castagno

Chief Product Officer. I’m a sociologist designing for humans since 1998.