New collaboration tools manufacture good ideas

Online features move brainstorming beyond talk

In an age of 140-character tweets, instant messaging and texting, Computer Sciences Corp. is using a Web-based technology that combines brainstorming, focus groups and guided expertise to generate corporate creativity through online sessions that can last a month or longer.

The application, Idea Central, was developed by software and professional services company Imaginatik plc, of Winchester, England. It is designed to help organizations maximize creativity through interaction that is monitored and guided by collaboration experts.

Geoff Carss, vice president of business development and professional services at Imaginatik, estimated that government contractors account for only 10 percent to 15 percent of sales. But he said he expects that percentage to continue to increase as more companies realize the value of Idea Central.

Martha Johnson, former CSC vice president of culture, was among the first to become convinced that using such collaborative technology could result in monetary savings.

“There is a whole culture around the chatting that people often think of as collaboration,” she said.

Beyond talk

In actuality, the collaborative process is more than just gathering a bunch of people together to talk, she said. Productive collaboration that results in creative, useful solutions also involves governance, leadership and resource management issues.

Johnson said Imaginatik’s application is different from many of the existing collaborative and social-networking tools because Idea Central was developed by academics trained in the theory and practice of collaboration rather than by information technology professionals.

It was Imaginatik’s expertise that convinced Johnson to introduce Idea Central at CSC. “We’ve been able to do some pretty interesting things, what they call ‘events’ over the last 18 months,” she said.

Behavioral studies of technological collaboration have shown there are two realities about the perception of how people collaborate, Carss said.

“There’s the people’s own perception about what they say they are doing,” he said. But examining data from server logs reveals another reality, which is how people use technology to collaborate.

“There’s a big difference between the two,” he added.

By understanding how people use technology to collaborate and how and when to intervene in that process, “you can change the [group’s] behavior to get a more participative culture,” Carss said.

“That behavior insight is deeply, deeply important to get the culture changed because ultimately we’re using technology as an enabler, not as an end in its own right," he added. "And understanding the human factor is really, really important to get that sustained success.” 

As an example, Carss cited an unnamed defense contractor that used Idea Central to solicit suggestions from more than 650 company engineers on how to respond to a complex request for proposals from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“Within four or five days, they had hundreds of contributions of insight around how to potentially meet this particular need,” Carss said.

Brainstorm and focus

Idea Central can help focus idea generation toward strategic business objectives and then securely capture, develop and share those ideas across an organization.

“It’s sort of like a Wikipedia construct, where you have a review team in the background,” Johnson said.

Idea Central has hosted CSC events involving as few as a couple hundred employees to a companywide event in which 90,000 employees took part to respond to Chief Executive Officer Mike Laphen’s solicitation for ideas on what areas of technology solutions the company should tackle next.

The review team was composed of CSC senior executives who had taken part in leadership training and acted as program managers during the event, she said. Other mid-evel employees also weighed in to help evaluate the merits of the suggestions.

“They are people that have opinions or reasons to be filtering and watching the ideas,” Johnson said. “So if someone puts up something that is pretty important, they will point to it, steer it, rename it — do things with it so that the rest of the community is focusing in on it.”

They would steer the exercise away from simply a discussion of random ideas and toward a specific direction, she added.

“It’s both brainstorming and converging on a solution,” Johnson said. “That’s the cool thing that it can do.”

Because CSC events are conducted over a wide timeframe, employees can electronically access Idea Central when they have the time to think about the topic being discussed.

“You can just call it up and see what other new ideas have come in, see if yours are being responded to, see what new questions have been posed, and so on,” she said. “It allows you to have this discussion across a couple of weeks or a couple of days and [involving] hundreds of people. But you don’t have to schedule a meeting.”

The long tail

The online process also encourages participants to lose their inhibitions and turn their interest to how well their ideas are registering with their colleagues, Johnson said, adding that sometimes the best ideas don't come from frequent contributors but from participants who rarely make suggestions.

She calls that “the long tail of the event.”

“It is in that long tail that you can find extraordinary ideas that can rocket you to all kinds of places,” she said.

“Early on, we were able to realize actual, bottom-line value that was not inconsequential," Johnson said. "It was certainly magnitudes of the investment in time and energy to do it.” 

She cited events last year during which employees of CSC’s European and Australian divisions found innovative ways to save money by taking advantage of tax-code changes.

Another event involved several hundred project management employees who suggested ways CSC could better manage its money flow. “It became a business process re-engineering [problem] done in under a month,” Johnson said, adding that as a result, “we saved a lot of money.”

“I believe this is the kind of thing that the federal government does need to embrace,” she added.

Carss agreed. “What government has is a highly skilled, dispersed resource pool where if you can get the right expertise, you can solve problems that have never happened to be solved before,” he said.

“There’s a lot of relevance for government here, both within agencies and across agencies as well — not withstanding security considerations,” Carss added.

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