Closing the innovation gap

October 5, 2009: 10:00 AM ET

Technology isn't a cure-all for getting employees to talk to each other. In fact, it can be the enemy.

By Scott Raskin, CEO, Mindjet

Raskin: Employees need to get out from behind their desks, literally or virtually. Photo: Mindjet

Raskin: Employees need to get leave their cubicles and desks, literally or virtually. Photo: Mindjet

How do you harness the creativity of your workforce? In this age of Twitter, Facebook and other so-called Web 2.0 tools, technology seems like an obvious way to get employees to collaborate.  Ditto your suppliers, customers and other interested parties.

But collaboration, high-tech or otherwise, isn't so easy to manage. Renowned business strategist Gary Hamel is one of many business leaders to comment on the challenges of sparking workforce creativity. In his book Leading the Revolution, Hamel dedicates a chapter to Design Rules for Innovation. He notes that a company's intent on generating sustained wealth must create "an open market for ideas…a dynamic internal market for ideas within the organization."

In essence, Hamel calls for a return of the collaboration that once stood as the cornerstone of innovation in Western culture – a culture that predated Tweets and status updates.

But what are we talking about when we describe this sought-after collaboration "renaissance"?

The roots of the collaborative work environment can be traced back to the 1970s and 80s.  Developed countries were facing the transition from primarily manufacturing-based economies – where discussions and planning revolved around improving manufacturing cycle times, increasing production and the ability to manufacture at a lower cost – to primarily service-oriented economies focused on bringing new products to market.

The creativity differentiator

The ability to be creative became a differentiator for so many of the businesses we know today.  And companies started placing a heavy emphasis on business environments that helped valued employees collaborate, innovate and solve real business problems.

As a result, the physical workplace changed.  Since most companies would typically operate out of one office building, the initial move was to open office space, and create low cubicles to facilitate conversations over walls.  Collaboration rooms were next, followed by the creation of the Huddleboard by Steelcase (SCS): movable whiteboards that could then be taken with the team wherever they went.  Ideas and information captured during collaborative sessions (brainstorms) would then "live" throughout the duration of the project.

As wonderfully explained and detailed by Thomas Friedman in his book The World is Flat,  the 90s brought forth the age of globalization; manufacturing and other key industries moved to more cost-efficient regions of the globe like India and China.

People no longer needed to be in a single or central location.  This, coupled with a workforce that had slowly transitioned to one that was more knowledge- and skill-oriented than its manufacturing-focused predecessors, forced organizations to seek efficiencies, and identify potential technologies to help address these issues.  Teleconferencing, video conferencing and the birth and evolution of e-mail all ensued.  Soon thereafter, technologies like web conferencing followed.

But in allowing for this distributed workforce – across various geographies and in disparate offices – technologies also pushed the workforce back into their offices and cubicles.

Who is building the virtual "Huddleboard"?

The movement of ideas and information became an e-mail exchange versus a brainstorming session in a conference room

This is a huge opportunity for the next wave of collaboration technologies: tools that can become the virtual equivalent of the Huddleboard or whiteboard perhaps can ignite creativity and collaboration among employees.  It helps that web 2.0 is by its very nature collaborative: a service such as Wikipedia, for example, benefits from the contributions of multiple users.

But unless the tools allow for real-time, interactive and – crucially, informal and candid exchanges – they run the risk of keeping people (and their ideas) behind their desks.

Raskin is CEO of Mindjet, a San Francisco-based company that develops tools to help companies collect, organize and share information.

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