David Tebbutt, Information World Review

Imaginatik is a company that helps very large organisations save lots of
money by plundering the brains of its employees, partners and consultants. The
active participants, by the way, are only too happy to contribute. The brain
plundering processes are supported by a rather enjoyable suite of software
called IdeaCentral, which can keep hundreds of thousands of participants in the
loop.

Everyone can participate through a portal tailored to their needs, including
preferred language. From there they can contribute ideas, see others’
suggestions, comment on them, vote and so on. It’s a powerful idea management
system with a social computing surface. The aim is to solve problems
collaboratively, using the huge power of large numbers of people with different
backgrounds.

The key is to articulate the problem clearly in the first place. To do
otherwise drops you into the mayhem of the ‘suggestion scheme’ approach, where
contributions are random and essentially unsolicited. Imaginatik asks questions
about the problem, and those responsible for triggering and evangelising an
‘event’ (in Imaginatik-speak) can get people to focus their ideas.

The question is important: get it wrong and you’ll get inappropriate answers.
It also needs to be challenging, to make people rise to the bait. Common sense?
Maybe, but how much effort normally goes into articulating a problem, isolating
the most important element and then phrasing the exact question that will
maximise the chances of focused and thoughtful responses?

Anyone who responds is shown a list of other similar responses instantly.
They can then join forces or, if they feel their own suggestion is fundamentally
different, continue with their own response. Anyone interested can read, comment
and vote on anything that’s been posted.

As Imaginatik’s Colin Nelson has said: “People don’t collaborate on bad
ideas.” People will coalesce around, and contribute to, suggestions they find
intere sting, not ideas they find ho-hum. Again, it’s common sense, but do we
actually think this way?

Perhaps 60% of ideas or suggestions are not original. They already happen in
part of the company, but it’s a case of surfacing them and showing their value.
When Imaginatik user Wal-Mart asked its staff for ideas, suggestions included
switching off video displays at night and removing the light bulbs from drinks
dispensers.

These ideas had almost certainly been tried locally but needed the trigger of
an ‘energy-saving event’ to be shared more widely. Larger companies clearly
benefit more from small changes applied en masse: Wal-Mart has saved $38m. The
cost of gathering ideas is dwarfed by the resulting savings.

And the more people who participate, the more likely it is that good ideas
will surface as participants bounce ideas off each other. They certainly avoid
the group-think that comes from small companies, close-knit teams or communities
of practice. Traditional brainstorming sessions and focus groups are similarly
hobbled.

Brainstorming because of the difficulty and expense of getting a bunch of
creative types together in one place at the same time. And focus groups because
the participants are likely to be well disposed towards an idea before joining
the group.

Most knowledge management practice is backward-looking – grabbing, preserving
and retrieving ‘legacy’ information – whereas this just-in-time knowledge can be
applied quickly and for immediate benefit. While the Imaginatik approach may
require deep pockets, much of its thinking could be applied using social
software tools. Couldn’t it?

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