It’s no surprise that online communities foster innovation in industry (and if it is you should take a few minutes and give this journal article entitled Online Communities and Open Innovation a quick read). Since the creation of the internet’s first message board, online communities have acted as a forum for exchange of thoughts where ideas created by one user were perpetuated and grown by others in remote locations. But this, of course, is old news. The story of community-oriented betterment of ideas and innovations by online user groups has been told and retold as online communities have flourished. Stackoverflow.com has aided programmers everywhere, Wikipedia has quite effectively hijacked the locks that used to be held by the gatekeepers of information, and niche-oriented professional communities are popping up left and right to lend the benefits of online collaboration.
What has yet to be fully vetted, however, is the manner in which these online communities will change the way industries and larger companies grow and innovate. According to the paper mentioned earlier, companies are attempting to piggyback onto some of these online communities to foster innovation in their own organizations. The paper also establishes that the two main themes crucial to proper management of these online communities are governance and symbolic value creation.
The issue here, is that in the examples offered, the application of these ideas is on communities that are not necessarily supposed to be governed by some despotic higher power, or create value for a specific cause other than organic innovation. Or in other words, not only is the work being designed around the technology, but the work is being designed around technology not necessarily intended for that use. On the industry level, the model of work being designed around technology as opposed to technology being designed around work is the end-all of innovation, motivation, and ultimately, success.
In order for innovation and community development to truly benefit a company, the technology must be developed around the work, and more importantly, the users completing that work.
As a quick example I’d like to reference the Pitney Bowes Employee Innovation program. In their White Paper study, Pitney Bowes identified the five characteristics of successful employee innovation as follows:
- Cultivate two-way conversations
- Tackle today’s business challenges
- Actively engage at all levels
- Foster diversity and inclusion
- Design to fit your culture
And after these characteristics, they leveraged them to create their innovative workforce. Seeking to lift the innovative capabilities of their employees to the next level, Pitney Bowes developed an internal social community called IdeaNet. This internal online community encouraged all employees within the company, from the C-suite right down to the entry-level assistants, to take part in idea challenges, while providing unparalleled avenues of communication between users and unfettered access to any innovative tool or informative document possible
Organic online communities should be left to be just that: organic. A company truly looking to foster its own innovation output should take a leaf of out Pitney Bowes’ book and build their technology around their work, and most importantly, their users.