Traditionally, enterprise innovation occurs as part of a structured effort to address targeted and well-defined organizational objectives. Companies challenged to transform an ineffective business model, increase sales, catch up with competition, or establish a market leading position will often turn to formal new idea creation initiatives to execute these objectives. At AT&T, we’ve built a highly successful crowdsourcing engine — perhaps one of the largest in the world — which we call The Innovation Pipeline (TIP). TIP ideas often find their way into AT&T’s Foundries where they are rapidly developed and prototyped. These ideas will often source technology inventions that have been developed at AT&T Labs Research. Many also result from diverse industry collaborations with partners and developers.

Harnessing Dynamic Innovation

But how effective are organizations in harnessing the opportunities that develop out of daily, common-place internal interaction between peers working to solve a micro-problem of the moment?  On the surface, the individual ideas created in such interactions don’t appear to rise to the level of innovation. But taken together, once shared and cross-pollinated, they establish an idea cloud from which innovation can sprout.

While strategy, process, and organizational priorities drive formal innovation, spontaneous micro-innovation is not an easily manageable entity. It is a dynamic to be harnessed for sure, but not in the same way as its formal cousin. In fact, any formality imposed on micro-innovation tends to diminish its effect by draining it of the spontaneity which fuels its engine.

So, if not through process and management, how can organizations harness this stream of creativity, ideas, and opportunities being born out of such everyday interactions?

Collaboration is the chosen approach for individuals to intellectually partner with their peers on experience sharing and idea development. In most organizations, blogs, wikis, discussion forums, and similar tools are commonplace. Pockets of social media-savvy participants organize in mostly closed communities to drive project activities and operational agendas. Knowledge and experience is recycled within these closed communities, but seldom reaches outside of their boundaries. Micro-innovation ends up being walled-in and contained within these communities.

Micro-Innovation from the Cloud

To tap into the micro-innovation idea cloud at the enterprise level, the silo walls need to be broken down and replaced with radically open systems, processes, and culture supporting and incenting cross-boundaries collaborative behavior. Among the aspirational aspects of such broad collaboration that remain largely unfulfilled are the:

  • Ability to recognize micro-ideas as valuable contributions to the larger enterprise idea cloud and the understanding of how to promote them
  • Use of enterprise-wide idea tag clouds within social media platforms to aggregate, expose, and promote ideas externally (i.e. beyond the silo/workgroup)
  • Active injection of ideas from the idea cloud into workgroup collaborations (context-sensitive tag cloud idea injection)
  • Universal access to collaboration tools across all platforms, particularly mobile, unencumbered by technical limitations; this is essential to support spontaneous access
  • Ability to dynamically identify resources and skills from across the enterprise (knowledge tag cloud)
  • Dis-incentivizing of the use of legacy, non-collaborative tools, such as email (e.g. through mailbox size limitations)
  • Promotion of executive awareness and highlighting of examples where management taps  into the micro-innovation idea cloud as a source of innovation

Capturing the “Little” Ideas

Collaboration and Spontaneous Micro-Innovation are both inseparable and indispensable components of any successful enterprise innovation framework. Organizations that learn how to harness this force and code it into their DNA will lead their peers and transform their respective industries.

How can you tap into micro-innovation within your organization?

The first step is to enable tools which support idea capture and dissemination – if your company has not yet implemented a social platform such as VMware Socialcast or SalesForce Chatter, you’re not well positioned to harness the idea cloud that already exists within your enterprise. Then incent your teams to use these tools. Gamification is one of the best and most effective ways for users to adopt new processes and tools – you’ll be amazed at the results and how quickly they occur. And third, use the results your efforts produce, tout them and re-cycle their notoriety to broaden adoption. The benefits gained are exponential to the level of participation.

Assuming that big ideas only come from formal centers of innovation, on a prescribed schedule, and with goal-driven results overlooks the compounding effect of micro-innovation happening at the most fundamental organizational level. Learn how to capture and nurture all of the “little” ideas that otherwise disappear into the ambient noise of everyday work and you may find that your next BIG idea comes from sources most often overlooked.