Companies should take advantage of internal expertise and ideas from their employees


Companies should take advantage of internal expertise and ideas from their employeesTwo years ago, a handful of programming engineers at Google’s Mountain View headquarters turned their mind to private energy use. A paradox revealed itself. Here they were at Google, a global search engine dedicated to making information accessible to internet users, while out there were millions of energy users with little or no knowledge about their personal power consumption. They set out to square the circle.

Last year, the answer was unveiled: the PowerMeter. This natty piece of kit monitors individuals’ power consumption online. A secure, web-based iGoogle gadget then causes the real-time information to pop up on users’ computer screens.

“Surveys prove that just giving people access to power-use data helps them reduce their energy consumption by up to 15% a year,” says Google’s Parag Chokshi.

The conception and development of the PowerMeter product owe their origins to Google’s “20% time” scheme. This informally managed system invites the company’s engineers to pursue pet projects for a fifth of their work time.

Subjects for experimentation vary. They could relate to the company’s existing products and services. Customer Happiness Fixit, an opportunity to iron out all the petty annoyances for Google users, is one such example. But equally, it could be something out of the blue.

Google credits its innovation-time approach for a host of its most successful products and applications. Google News, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Talk and social networking site Orkut are just some.

The approach has also spawned a number of corporate responsibility solutions. Before PowerMeter, for instance, there was RechargeIt. Launched in 2007, this web-based scheme provides online performance data for a fleet of plug-in electric cars operating at Google’s California HQ. The project followed hot on the heels of Google’s announcement that it was to become carbon-neutral.

Intrapreneurs, show yourselves

Google epitomises a trend that is happening across the corporate world. As competition stiffens and the push for breakthrough ideas accelerates, companies are seeking to rack the brains of their own employees. The approach even has a name: intrapreneurship.

The term was first popularised by Apple’s Steve Jobs back in the mid-1980s. An intrapreneur, as he put it, was someone who went “back to the garage, but in a large company”.

It seems to have worked. Innovations such as the MacBook, iPhone and iPad have consistently kept Apple at the cutting edge.

Now corporate responsibility and sustainability practitioners are looking to tap employee innovation in a similar vein. James Austin, a professor of business administration at Harvard University, identifies social intrapreneurs as key to changing the direction of company management.

“[Social intrapreneurs] are focused on fostering and bringing about the internal organisational transformation and innovation that moves the organisation to a more advanced state of CSR,” he argues in a recent article for the International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law*.

How to spot a social intrapreneur? Austin provides an outline. First and foremost, they will be internal champions of responsible business and its integration into the business. Good communication and teamwork skills will also single them out. So too will the ability to create innovative solutions. Austin says they will “not be managers of the status quo, but creators of a new, sometimes disruptive one”.

Other qualities include their function as catalysts for change as well as their ability to mobilise and incentivise others to follow their lead. Success, however, requires shrewdness. Business basics and the competing interests that occur in any company oblige them to frame their ideas on the bottom line, not in cloud cuckoo land.

“As organisational change agents, they need to be able to assess how fast and far they can move the transformational process within the realities of the organisation,” Austin notes.

To a large extent, social intrapraneurs select themselves. The job of the company, therefore, is to help draw them out of the woodwork.

Google’s time-off model provides a stellar example. But not all companies are full of tech wizards who enjoy fiddling and problem-solving. In many instances, face-to-face discussions work just as well.

“You can’t really beat good old-fashioned workshops and seminars … for direct involvement in creating solutions,” says Adrian Hosford, formerly corporate responsibility manager at telecoms company BT and now a communications consultant.

At BT, Hosford used to organise weekly and monthly telephone conferences for employees interested in specific sustainability-related issues. Team meetings and employee surveys were also critical parts of the internal feedback package.

To facilitate dialogue with internal networks of interested parties, many companies establish formalised groups of sustainability champions or ambassadors.

BT’s Carbon Clubs are illustrative of the trend. By 2012, the UK telecoms firm hopes to involve a fifth of its employees in these voluntary associations. The clubs are geared towards achieving emission cuts at work as well as outside the business.

New technologies, particularly social media, have expanded the internal (and, it should be pointed out, external) pool from which companies can fish for fresh ideas.

Sustainability-related innovation initiatives such as GE’s ecomagination programme and Marks & Spencer’s Plan A all have online facilities for employees to feed in ideas and comments.

“Essentially, it’s an updated approach to employee suggestion boxes. But they have a new, innovative feel because they are a blog or online,” says Andrew Wilson, director at UK consultancy firm Corporate Citizenship.

Freedom of expression

Whatever the medium, feedback only works when employees feel at liberty to express ideas and experiment with alternative ways of doing things.

US coffee chain Starbucks understands this better than most. It gives the managers of each of its outlets the freedom to determine what community investment programme is most appropriate for their location. Starbucks’ policy has unleashed huge creativity. The Starbucks outlet closest to the London School of Economics, for example, uses the store space for hosting student debates.

Incentives are also proven to get employees’ creative juices flowing. Take drinks giant SABMiller. At its North Carolina brewery, management encourages staff to submit energy-saving ideas. As a reward, the company foots the electricity bill of the winning employee.

Equally, UK retailer Marks & Spencer runs a green ideas competition every year. Annually the company receives about 500 ideas, with the best winning “eco-prizes”.

But is the office always the best place to think out of the box, particularly on issues related to the wider society and environment? Perhaps not.

Progressive employers are now looking to community involvement projects and other external engagement activities as a means of unlocking good ideas for their businesses.

“Because companies are working in their communities in partnership with other organisations, it gives people exposure to different sides of the issues they are dealing with,” says Catherine Sermon, national community impact director at the UK membership group Business in the Community.

Linking up with organisations that support vulnerable groups or people with disabilities provides a prime example. British Gas, for instance, teamed up with UK charity Help the Aged to provide the company’s helpline staff with advice on problems relating to elderly customers.

The approach works particularly well with service providers, notably insurance companies. Take Direct Line. The UK firm teamed up with the charity Victim Support with the aim of providing a better service to distressed claimants.

“Such experiences enable employees to empathise more with vulnerable customer groups by having the insight and experience with their voluntary sector partnership,” Sermon says.

It can also enable innovation in product development. Swiss Re provides proof. As part of an internal scenario exercise, the global reinsurance company invited a select number of non-profit groups to discuss sustainability issues related to its industry.

The exercise fed into ongoing internal thinking around products related to the Millennium Development Goals. What emerged was a low-cost insurance product that safeguards farmers in the south of India against poor harvests.

Similar cross-sectoral learning approaches are being put to work at the level of companies’ corporate responsibility strategies and product development.

Get on secondment

Non-profit secondments or volunteering opportunities, often overseas, are an increasingly popular means of fostering skill development among high potential employees. Accenture’s business partnership scheme and IBM’s corporate service corps are two leading examples of in-house programmes.

“There are more and more organisations that are actively putting people out into non-profits so that they can then come back with ideas that they can then develop within their own organisations,” says David Williams, co-founder of the global leadership development firm Impact International.

He cites the example of Sony. In its UK operations, the Japanese entertainment and electronics company is encouraging its senior managers to work for a number of days a week with social enterprises as part of their executive development. The skills offered by the Sony managers are “more than paid back” with new ideas and innovations.

“They [social enterprises] innovate and come up with great ideas. Now those ideas are beginning to spill back into the corporations that are supporting these initiatives,” Williams says.

It takes forward thinking to ensure such creativity is properly channelled, however. Acacia, a US leadership development company that runs structured secondments in Latin America, advocates a clear follow-up programme for returning employees.

“People go on these experiences but unless that learning is actively mined and their new competencies have an opportunity to translate into the companies’ culture, then they are all too frequently lost,” says Christine Bonney, managing partner at Acacia.

Recognising employees as the best source of innovation is not new. The Japanese management concept of Kaizen, or continuous improvement, has long advocated that the person closest to a process is the one best placed to come up with solutions.

If employees are to be a source of new ideas about sustainability, they need to rub shoulders with those living and breathing these issues every day. That requires employees to step out of the office and away from their comfort zone. Do that and the cogs of innovative thinking will start turning.

*International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, Volume 11, Issue 4, August 2009

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