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Combing the outside world for potentially useful innovation ideas is necessary but it’s not sufficient. Managers in large companies have to figure out ways to ensure that the best new ideas actually reach the people able to exploit them.
The way many companies do this is by having someone in the position of “idea connector.” This is the person who links up the “idea scouts” — people with well-developed knowledge and social networks outside their company but limited networks within it — to the R&D engineers and others who can develop the suggestions.
Here’s how it works at Google, “a company that has excelled in turning nascent ideas into innovative products,” according to authors Eoin Whelan, Salvatore Parise, Jasper de Valk and Rick Aalbers, writing in “Creating Employee Networks That Deliver Open Innovation”:
Central to this success has been the role of Marissa Mayer, a company vice president, who exemplifies the key traits of an idea connector. The initial concept for orkut (Google’s social networking site) or for the company’s desktop search did not originate with her, but she played a central role in ensuring that those promising ideas, and many others that bubbled up to the surface, were fast-tracked for investment.
One useful mechanism has been Mayer’s tradition of holding three weekly sessions where she is accessible to all Google employees who want to pitch a new idea. She brainstorms with these scout-equivalents and presses them for more details on the proposed products’ functionality before deciding whether to champion the ideas to company leaders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
Idea connectors, the authors write, “are the hub of the company’s social network, the go-to people of the organization. Much of their expertise lies in knowing who is doing what. When they are made aware of an opportunity for innovation, connectors not only know who in the company is best equipped to exploit that idea but also possess the social capital needed to rapidly deploy the network to meet that particular challenge.”
The take-away: Companies need formalized processes for people with ideas to get to people with the influence to move on them.
“Creating Employee Networks That Deliver Open Innovation” is part of a package of stories about innovation in the Fall 2011 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. Others include the survey-rich “The Age of the Consumer-Innovator” on the massive amounts of product innovation generated by consumers and “Is Your Company Ready for Open Innovation?” on the ways large companies are transforming employee attitudes along with incentive systems.