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Sunday, April 04, 2010

Companies Shouldn't Build Online Communities

by Boris Pluskowski

Companies Shouldn’t Build Online CommunitiesForget about Communities. Don't do it. Don't even think about it. Oh I know that communities are all the rage currently - companies are falling over themselves to create, build and own their very own communities: Communities of Employees, Communities of Customers, Communities of Interest Groups, Communities, Communities, Communities...

But with all of these efforts out there, how many of them are yielding real tangible results for the sponsoring organization? It seems that the very concept of communities is a flawed one for most corporations - leading to wasted time, money and effort - and I think I know why.

Let me explain:

I find that many, maybe even most, companies approach social media, and other online community projects - with very little, if any, forethought on how value will be achieved as a result of jumping on this particular bandwagon.

They seem to share a belief that value will just be created by the mere existence of a new online channel; that innovation will simply appear if you provide a new collaborative tool; that competitive advantage will be retained through the ownership of a new networking group. Yet, that's rarely ever the case.

Unlike in the movie "Field of Dreams" - you can build it - but they rarely come spontaneously - or if they do, they may well end up playing a jovial game of scrabble rather than a vintage MLB baseball game on the back lawn.

Even the word Community itself is somewhat flawed when applied to a corporate setting: Here's the Dictionary.com definition of the word:

community - [kuh-myoo-ni-tee] - noun, plural -ties.
  1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
  2. a locality inhabited by such a group.
  3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually prec. by the): the business community; the community of scholars.
  4. a group of associated nations sharing common interests or a common heritage: the community of Western Europe.
  5. Ecclesiastical. a group of men or women leading a common life according to a rule.
  6. Ecology. an assemblage of interacting populations occupying a given area.
  7. joint possession, enjoyment, liability, etc.: community of property.
  8. similar character; agreement; identity: community of interests.
  9. the community, the public; society: the needs of the community.

There are a lot of nice words and feelings in that definition. "A social group"; "common heritage"; "interacting populations"; "shared identity"... The word conjures up a nice warm vision of a collection of friends and associates sitting around a fireside or, for the more cynical among you, images of suburban old age homes in Florida and Arizona maybe.

As I look at that definition however - I ask myself - where's the value in that for a company? Where does it get created? Augmented? Shared? Delivered? Whichever way you look at it, communities are about people gathering with no set agenda or action in mind - so why would a company invest/waste resources to simply enable random conversations amongst a group of people? At best, it's an exercise in corporate branding to be associated with a particular conversation topic; at worst it's an exercise in wishful thinking.

At the recent World Business Forum, held in New York City on Oct 6-7, 2009, Patrick Lencioni (founder and president of the Table Group, and a fantastically articulate and dynamic speaker incidentally) spoke to the audience about "What makes a good team?" One specific question stuck with me: "If you have a bunch of people who play in a sports team each week, really get on well with each other socially, gel as a unit, yet still manage to not win a single game - are they a good team?" Patrick asked with a mischevious look at the front row and a pause for effect. "The answer is NO - they're just a bunch of LOSERS!" (cue laughter and some nervous side glances between executives either side of me).

Whilst maybe declared a tad glibly by Patrick, the core message was clear, and it got me thinking about what had been bothering me with the concept of communities for so long: That lack of performance, of achievement, of purpose. It struck me that the relative value of the concept of communities to most organizations is not dissimilar to Patrick's example of a team that doesn't win - they are, in essence, losers. And why would companies waste time creating groups of losers?

It seems to me that the failure companies are making starts right at the beginning with a badly formed misconception as to what they really need - and it's not an online community - it's an online team.

It may seem as if I'm nit-picking or playing with semantics in making this differentiation - but consider what this simple change in mindset would mean to projects as you think about how to build a great online team instead of an online community. All of a sudden you add dimensions of:
  • Direction and Leadership
  • Shared Goals, Shared Failures, and Shared Successes
  • Ensuring Participation of Diverse Skill Sets
  • Tangible Achievement
  • Passion, Purpose and Loyalty

Whist still retaining all the collaborative, cooperative and creative structures usually associated with Communities.

I don't know about you - but I know which one I'd rather build! You tell me - What's the more powerful concept?

Editor's note: If you would like to save $200 on either this year's World Business Forum or World Innovation Forum, please register with discount code "innovate"

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Boris PluskowskiBoris Pluskowski is the Founder of The Complete Innovator where he regularly shares new ideas and best practices on how big companies can harness Innovation, Collaboration and Social Media to drive new sources of value throughout the enterprise.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Need for Variety and the Innovation Quiver

by Boris Pluskowski

The Need for Variety and the Innovation QuiverInnovation, like writing, is a fickle mistress really - easy to find one day, hard to find the next - but always around somewhere.

At the recommendation of my good friend, fellow Bostonian and business author extraordinaire Steve Shapiro, I'd begun to use a local Starbucks as a place to go and get inspired and avoid the typical distractions that keep popping up in my office.

However, this last week or so, my Starbucks was failing me; it simply wasn't doing it for me anymore. Whether it was the constant parade of chatty college girls passing through the doors, releasing a blast of cold air to all inside; or the large trimmed windows reminding me of the yucky grey day I was trying to avoid outside , I just couldn't find the inspiration I needed to begin writing anything useful. My trusty "innovation tool" simply wasn't working for me anymore.

It occurred to me that something needed to change, so I got up and walked out the door. I ended up walking into the cavernous interior of the Boston Public Library, and found a desk and chair nestled somewhere within the US History section - that for whatever reason seemed to call to me. Surrounded by books on George Washington's military career on one side and books on Thomas Jefferson's political career on the other and before I knew it, the floodgates had opened and off I was writing again!

As I wrote and reflected upon my inner creation demons that I was struggling to overcome just a few hours earlier - I was thus reminded of one of the most important lessons in innovation - the need for variety in an innovation program. Let me explain:

Whilst you should strive to make innovation a repeatable, sustainable process, that doesn't mean it should be executed like an automaton. I've seen too many clients ultimately fail because they don't understand that they simply can't rely on a single trusted process to last them forever. There are three main reasons for this, in no particular order:

1) Innovation is about problem solving - identifying, defining, and solving problems that will drive new growth opportunities for your company to be precise. Problems have a tendency to be unique, to offer individual challenges that need to be understood and overcome - and whilst most can frequently be tackled in more than one way, to rely on one single methodology to tackle all of them is foolish.

2) Modern day innovation is a highly human intensive process, relying on creative and constructive contributions from a variety of sources - employees, suppliers, customers, and more. As such, we are subject to the subtle whims of the human creative conscience. In other words - people get bored.

They also can just get creatively exhausted. Keep asking the same subset of people a continuous stretch of questions and you'll notice participation slowly, and sometimes dramatically, fall off. No matter how important the topic, people reach the limits of their creative thought endurance.

3) Modern day Innovation is also no longer the domain of a few, but rather the expectation of the many. You're now expected to run an innovation program that is no longer confined to one part of your company like R&D, but reaches out across all aspects of your business in search of the next big thing that will eek out a few more points of competitive advantage in the market. And that reach doesn't stop at the traditional corporate walls, but extends to a global audience with the understanding that the best solution to your problems will frequently lie outside of those walls.

What that means is that you're now talking to a variety of people - some internal, some external, some trusted, some unknown - each of which should be handled in a different manner to obtain ideal collaborative input from them.

I've frequently told my clients that they should think of their innovation program as a quiver of arrows - the more arrows you have, and the better aim you have, the more your chances of coming back home with a nice venison dinner rather than a shot-up turnip.

Each arrow in the innovation "quiver" is designed to offer a different way to bring in a solution to the innovation problem at hand; and by using a variety of arrows in your innovation program, you not only become a better and more well rounded "hunter", you also become more adept and understanding how best to overcome the environmental conditions at hand.

Ask a cross sectional group of employees for their ideas on how to solve a specific problem. No success? Then ask a different cross section of employees in a different manner. Maybe your internal staff has reached exhaustion point, or maybe they're just too close to this particular problem. Look outside then! Maybe we invite specific suppliers and partners to have a go at the solution in our Idea Lab. Maybe we invite the local entrepreneur community to show their potential solutions in an Entrepreneur Day at our offices. Have we found several solutions now? Maybe we bring in interesting entrepreneurs from inside/outside the company to a "Dragon's Den" ("Shark Tank" in the US) type of event. Or how about setting up a virtual idea market to tap into the wisdom of the crowds instead?

Each of these methods and many more should be developed as innovation arrows in your quiver that can be reused multiple times to ensure an active, engaged and efficient innovation program that will drive the achievement of corporate growth goals.

It's an interesting paradox though how many in the innovation industry, an area where we endeavor to bring a state of constant (but controlled) change into our organizations, don't consider the necessity for that same state in our very own innovation programs.

In other words, we decide upon one arrow to use, and we keep on using it until it fails to work anymore before we begin to look around our bare quiver for further possibilities.

How many arrows do you keep in your quiver?

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Boris PluskowskiBoris Pluskowski is the Founder of The Complete Innovator where he regularly shares new ideas and best practices on how big companies can harness Innovation, Collaboration and Social Media to drive new sources of value throughout the enterprise.

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Friday, February 26, 2010

The Mad World of Innovation

by Boris Pluskowski

The Mad World of InnovationI believe it was Albert Einstein who once said that the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." So I feel I'm in good company as I observe the sheer insanity of companies and the way they embrace innovation.

I've been watching several people I know Twittering and Blogging their observations from several innovation conferences recently and it finally dawned on me what's been missing: anything at all new.

All the big takeaways, noteworthy points, and otherwise shareable insights have quite simply all been seen and done before. They're all rehashed observations and reinvented wheels - some of which have been out for over 10 years - Which brings up the question - Is there a lack of innovation or originality in the innovation practice itself?

Maybe - maybe not - but I refuse to believe that there aren't areas of innovation thought and practice that are still ripe for exploration and innovation of the core processes themselves. Instead, let me point the finger at a different potential culprit - organizational ignorance in picking their leaders.

As someone who's been in the job market for senior innovation roles for a little while now - it's been interesting to note that most job opportunities that have crossed my desk seem to end in one of two ways:
  1. The company decides to hire someone internal despite a lack of any internal innovation skills or experience, believing that the right person will simply learn the necessary process expertise quickly enough to make it all work.

  2. or otherwise the company decides not hire anyone at all due to budgetary cuts/changes in corporate priorities.

The second option implies a serious lack of understanding as to the power and importance of innovation - especially with regards to making sure the company has a future - or even a present for that matter. Even in a downturn as bad as the one we're experiencing now - one would expect for companies to shorten the time horizon for innovation processes to deliver results - but not to eliminate them altogether - that's just crazy. To be fair, most of the ones that have ended like this have ended with an intention to revisit this "innovation concept" again in the future - but that's still pretty dumb, as the situation won't get any better until you make core changes, until you change the rules of the game to better suit your strengths, until, in short, you innovate your way out of it.

However, I put to you that the first option is just as bad if not worse - as it implies that there is little or no value in innovation process expertise - despite all evidence to the contrary as to how tricky it can be to balance the rapid achievement of organizational goals with the engagement of social and human capital needed to fuel the innovation process. They would rather take someone who "understands the company" and attempt to teach them how innovation works than the other way around. I don't know about you, but outside of certain government entities who don't understand themselves how they get anything done - I don't know of any company that is that complex that you can't pick it up in a few weeks - are they trying to say that learning how to put together a comprehensive innovation program that engages the value chain and social networks as a whole to driving new sources of value that will generate results for the organization is easier than that?? Doesn't make sense to me - but then again, I'm not the one making those kind of calls. For now at least...

The result then, is a continuous stream of new innovation "leaders", making the same mistakes over and over again - and coming up with the same results (or lack of them) and 'insights' repeated over and over again. There are plenty of good innovation people out there - plenty with the knowledge, expertise, and ability to not only make an innovation program work - but to make it excel and deliver massive results. It's no wonder that the companies that invest heavily in innovation are the ones who thrive and survive - they're the ones who value the process expertise over industry expertise.

So here's my wakeup call Corporate World - industry expertise counts for little or nothing in the innovation game! In fact - it can even frequently be a hindrance. It puts walls up where they might not need to be; tells you what you "can and can't do"; what "will and won't work" - it can be, and frequently is, in short, a barrier to innovation - the very thing you're trying to achieve.

As a result, we get what we've been seeing on the conference circuit - a steady stream of people relatively new to the subject who are trying to assimilate the complexities of innovation and social networks from scratch - and as a result -progress in the innovation industry has been handcuffed - and corporate results with innovation have been mediocre at best as these people make the same mistakes all over again that the previous generation made - reinventing the wheel over and over again...

As Gary Jules sang: "I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take, When people run in circles it's a very very... Mad World, Mad World"

Please stop running in circles everyone. Comments, as always, are very welcome.

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Boris PluskowskiBoris Pluskowski is the Founder of The Complete Innovator where he regularly shares new ideas and best practices on how big companies can harness Innovation, Collaboration and Social Media to drive new sources of value throughout the enterprise.

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