Four technology driven ways to develop ideas collaboratively

I’ve recently been looking into interesting alternative ways of facilitating idea generation for organisations and came up with four tool types that I think hold promise for creating alternative mechanisms for idea generation.

Idea generation is a key activity for many organisations, but the meeting driven (and meetings are the source of most ideas) idea generation model doesn’t always work for a few reasons:

  • Location – firms are increasingly distributed and new work options are only going to increase the physical separation of employees
  • Time – everyone knows arranging meetings with all important stakeholders can be difficult
  • Attention – everyone in the world can generate ideas, but can they generate ideas at 10:30 on tuesday the 4th of August?  Forcing ideas into a tiny window can be troublesome (although admittedly pressure sometimes helps)

The following tools (with examples) have promise, keep reading at the end for some good general tips for electronic idea generation (ideation in innovation parlance).

Mindmapping

Everyone has come across mindmapping at some point.  A mindmap provides a simple way to develop a hierarchy of items around a common theme, and can be successfully used to generate a bunch of ideas quickly.  Remote collaboration for mind maps is something that’s popped up in the web2.0 revolution a few years back and makes mind maps a great collaboration tool.  I’ve personally used the online tool mindmeister pretty successfully (they even have a few templates for SWOT generation and the like), although mindjet has recently added online functionality (it’s a little pricey though).

When using mindmapping for ideas, make sure you have your scope defined (or visibly open ended) and summarised in the core of the map (the center element).  If you want some structure around ideas, remember to insert a blank tree, and an example tree.  Mindmeister allows for notes to be attached to nodes and the like, which will make describing your map easier.

Jamming

A jamming “platform” provides an online mechanism for individuals (usually invited, but there are community and open models) to create ideas, comment and tag ideas and vote on ideas (usually using some form of “up” or “down” voting, like digg), plus a back office suite for managing stats, keeping up with participants etc. This has been used for great effect by IBM for a number of years, running jams with 100’s of thousands of participants (they have a website that talks about their experience).  If configured correctly, an jam is a great ideation tool, which can generate a huge pool of ideas in a reasonable timeframe, although you’ll probably need some help to set up your first one (it hasn’t really hit the b-schools as a mainstream tool)

The main products that I’ve come across are BrightIdea’s Webstorm, which I think is more for the open or community jam, and elguji software’s ideajam.  I’ve only seen a jam using the elguji platform so I can’t vouch for other platforms, but it was very successful.

If you’re in Australia, check out Vulture Street for jam services and running a jam in your organisation.

Microblogging

Microblogging has taken off massively in popularity publically, and is starting to make headway in businesses as well.  Developing ideas with microblogging can be as simple as asking questions (possibly incorporating #hashtags to facilitate gathering stats) and prompting discussion in whatever channel your organisation uses (set one up before your next strategy session).

There are a number of microblogging platforms, but for my money Socialcast is the winner in features for a pure microblogging/activity-stream application (I don’t rate yammer), although a lot of webapps provide some form of activity stream, so you might not want to have too much doubleup in your organisation.  For full fledged options that include wikis and more complete portal services, look at Jive’s offerings or SocialText.

Google Wave

Google wave is a bit of an enigma, dependent on which side of the fence you sit on it’ll either change everything, or die a quiet death.  I personally think it has the potential to change a lot in organisations, but people are having trouble finding a particular use in their organisations that isn’t already covered by other collaborative platforms (gDocs for example).

Using google wave for idea generation is a no-brainer though, they even have a guide that gives some good (albeit short) tips on using it for brainstorming.  I think for best success you need an online moderator/facilitator who will manage the development of a wave, being cognizant of useful questions or frameworks to incorporate in a live wave.

General tips

I think that online collaboration isn’t going to fully supplant face-to-face time in an organisation, but I think that organisations creating new idea generating channels can only be a good thing and they may provide mechanisms to engage employees (and other stakeholders), improve the quality and breadth of ideas, and occasionally break down the internal silos that organisations face.  In general though you need to be careful when using these online tools, as a start I suggest thinking about the following items:

  1. Have a clearly defined purpose, even if that purpose is free form idea generation.  If you need detail, but don’t know where to start consider bootstrapping your ideation process though a couple of phases (step one: what should we ask, step two: ask the question)
  2. Define the ground rules of the discussion.
  3. Define your audience carefully, should it be staff (or a subset), will you include customers, suppliers, or will it be open to the general public
  4. Bank on time to motivate and cajole participation, particularly if this is new for your organisation.  If there are particular individuals who you absolutely need to contribute, spend an appropriate amount of time on them
  5. Just because it’s electronic, doesn’t mean it’s not a conversation, treat it as such
  6. Remember your facilitation skills: ask questions, guide discussion, play roles, summarize, define outcomes.
  7. Be aware of your social capital when asking questions, if you’re the CEO, you’re going to get a lot more attention than an line manager.  If you need more social capital, recruit some sponsors before you start.  (for good discussion on this look at this post from Mitch Joel).
  8. Finally, without putting thought into how you are going to filter, select and collate these ideas (even the rejected ones), you aren’t going to make the most of your efforts and you are going to waste a lot of people’s time and make them unhappy and disengaged for the next time you want ideas.  This is of course one of the key components of innovation management (see here, for good commentary).

Hopefully you find that useful!

Photo from State Library and Archives of Florida (flickr)