In a three-week experiment, GE Research turned its 85 employees into day traders, letting them watch market movements on their screens to decide whether to buy or sell any of 62 stocks. Only the stocks were product ideas in which the company had the option to develop. At stake was $50,000 in research funding that GE would allocate to the highest-valued project.
When the markets closed, GE ended up with a prioritized list of ideas that the collective wisdom of the market thought would best help the company. Topping the list was an algorithm in the area of machine intelligence, an idea pitched directly by a researcher, not through the normal hierarchy of lab managers and senior management.
Dell looked to an even broader market for new product ideas, using Salesforce.com's online voting service called Ideas and launching Dell IdeaStorm, where anyone can submit and vote on new features and options for Dell products. Perhaps best known of these ideas is a Linux-based laptop Dell introduced in May 2007. Starbucks uses the same voting platform, at MyStarbucksIdea.com, and took an online suggestion posted Oct. 7 by BillMac to offer a free cup of coffee Nov. 4 to anyone in the United States who voted.
The use of these collective decision-making technologies, both sophisticated prediction markets and simple voting tools, is spreading, and they're increasingly being paired together as a component of corporate innovation programs, helping companies sort through reams of ideas--from new products to customer service to productivity improvements--to find that handful of blockbusters.
A key in any system relying on mass participation is motivating the right people to participate. The software system itself must be user-friendly and offer value, such as providing easy access to ideas that may stimulate one's own thinking, or useful metric about that other groups in the corporation are doing. If outsiders are involved, there must be filters of some kind to pre-select those whose opinions are likely to matter. The ability to pass a CAPTCHA test is not necessarily correlated with having valuable insights.
Will "Innovation Clouds" become the way of the future? Can crowdsourcing help identify the next iPod? Or is it more likely to give us Edsels?
The data from collaborative innovation tools and voting applications can be considered in identifying key innovations, but don't overlook the contributions of your visionary product developers and R&D personnel, especially your multidisciplinary master's of innovation who can serve as "DaVincis in the Boardroom." (A topic in the forthcoming book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue by Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins, and Mukund Karanjikar, to be published by John Wiley & Sons, June/July 2009.)
As James Surowiecki indicated in his famous Wisdom of the Crowds, crowd-based decisions work best when the work is done with a decentralized, diverse, independent population. Will it work for corporate idea management? Not easy! People can readily fall into line and comply with corporate culture and the opinion of local influencers. We'll stay tuned and watch how these concepts play out.