Employees as User Innovators

After analyzing 759 innovation proposals submitted by employees of a large international Information and Communication Technology (ICT) firm to a corporate idea management system over a two years period, three researchers concluded that “employees innovate in various ways, including modifying internal processes, creating new products and services, or significantly changing the way the firm delivers an existing service.” (Extract of the paper “Employees as User Innovators: An Empirical Investigation of an Idea Management System,” June 2012)

The paper titled “Employees as User Innovators: An Empirical Investigation of an Idea Management System,” was written by the dual degree doctoral student in Technological Change and Entrepreneurship Leid Zejnilovic at Carnegie Mellon University; Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics; Instituto Superior Técnica of the Universidade Técnica de Lisboa, with his two advisors Pedro Oliveira, Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, and Francisco M. Veloso, Carnegie Mellon University. This paper was written in the scope of the Carnegie Mellon Portugal Program, funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT).

 Leid ZejnilovicWe spoke with Leid Zejnilovic, the first co-author of the paper, about the importance of these findings. 

CMU Portugal: What is the real impact of this paper?
Leid Zejnilovic (LZ):
When we started this research it was a surprise for me to learn that despite the evidence of a growing popularity of the idea management systems, their performance is at best not consistent, and it is not uncommon for their implementation to end with a failure. And there is quite a history of their use, more than a century of different experiences. We were intrigued to learn if there is a way to exploit successful practices in the open innovation world to improve the performance of the tool (Idea Management System - IMS) that is consistently believed in by so many firms and for so long. In our research, we find a remarkable success of proposals that configure employee-user innovations: 90% of the proposals were implemented by the broader organization; they were 3.5 times more likely to be adopted when compared to other IMS proposals. The extent of change these innovations introduce to existing processes, products or services was also much higher. Our result indicates potentials for important improvement in the performance of the IMSs. But, to fully exploit these findings it may be important to think about the opportunities employees are given to exercise their user-innovator drive inside a firm. From interviews with people in the firm that shared its data with us, but also in other firms, we concluded that there is not much attention being paid to the potential role that internal or external users can play in the innovation process. In addition, most organizations do not have their systems, products and services structured in a way that employees can easily tinker and change them. The findings from our paper could motivate decision makers to change such a practice, and organize for more productive user-innovation with employees, but also users outside the firms. There is a significant academic research on innovation and suggestion systems, and their successors, idea management systems. We contributed with a novel approach to analysis of performance of these systems, taking into account the user-innovation perspective.

“Our study contributes to practice and academic work in managing innovation in several ways.” – Paper authors.

CMU Portugal: According to this paper, what kind of strategies can be used to stimulate employees to behave as user innovators?
LZ:
There is not a single strategy that fits every firm. But there are general recommendations that may help developing a successful strategy. People are curios by nature and engage into experimenting and tinkering with whatever they work, and the results often come as a positive surprise. A good way for firms to begin is by being open to embrace opportunities that come from their employees being user-innovators. That process starts by assessing relevance of current user-innovation contributions to the firms' ideation process. This should be accompanied with identification of successful experiences that can be amplified, and obstacles that can be addressed. The outcome would eventually reinforce efficient innovation practices, and serve as an impetus for faster mobilization of the inner innovative force. Another approach, not necessarily separate from what is mentioned above, is to learn from the rich experiences in the world of open innovation. Flexible work platforms, venues for collaboration and solutions sharing beyond a working place or geographic location, are only a few of successful approaches that firms can employ to stimulate user-innovators to self-mobilize and contribute.

CMU Portugal: What kind of data did you analyzed to achieve these conclusions?
LZ:
The core of our data is a set of 759 innovation proposals submitted by employees of a large international information and communication technology firm to a corporate idea management system over a two years period. We gathered detailed information about the innovation proposals’ types, their expected use, field of application, and the extent of change they introduce, whether they represent a user-innovation by the employees, and their success in the idea management system. A group of independent coders, assigned by the firm, coded the innovation proposals, to rule out any bias from our side - the researchers. Our primary interest was to explore whether a systematic difference in performance exists between innovation proposal that describe user-innovations by employees, and the rest of the innovation proposals. We also investigated alternative answers, that the difference is driven by factors other than user-innovation. We gathered data about the environment where the proposals originated (departments and business lines), and also the idea’s authors - their demographics, academic and industrial education, tenure in the firm, and experiences within the firm with respect to work in different departments, and included them in our analysis. In addition, we validated our data and findings through a number of interviews with the firm’s innovators, and innovation managers.

CMU Portugal: Could you give an example of an employee that becomes a user innovator?
LZ:
An example illustrates the idea. A telecom engineer in charge of mobile network “health” started coding his own analytical approach to analyze records of equipment performance logs as a set of procedures in a program. Over time, he developed a software tool, so that he could reduce the time needed to complete his analyses. Later, he described his program in a proposal submitted to the internal IMS. The result is a software, adopted division wide, which makes the role of an engineer in the “health” check process almost obsolete, cutting the service time from a few weeks to a few hours. These effects eventually led the corporation to completely change the way the “health” check service is provided to the customers - telecom operators. In this example, the innovation was first developed and used by an employee, who was motivated by his own benefits from using it. After the innovator materialized the idea, he thought it would be good to report it to the firm’s IMS. The innovation advanced from a solution used by an individual to a globally applied corporate solution. This example was far from unique. Our study of proposals submitted by the firm’s employees to the IMS left no place for doubts. Out of 759 observed proposals submitted over 2 years, 46 proposals contained a description of an idea that has been already materialized and used by the authors to some extent.

“The employees empowered by technology, with a rich use experience, and motivated by the potential benefits of using the innovation were able to convert their ideas into reality. They are the user innovators who modify processes, products, and services, to better meet their needs. Given their environment, we refer to them as employee-user innovators.” – said Leid Zejnilovic.

CMU Portugal: What will be your next steps?
LZ:
My general research interests are in exploring the ways technology may help firms and individuals innovate better, and how such innovative output can be used to improve social welfare. The Insituto Superior Técnico and Católica Lisbon School of Business are great places to develop such a research, with prominent academic staff, world-class researchers, and very active international collaboration. With my advisers, Pedro Oliveira and Francisco Veloso, the next step is investigating a role that technology, and in particular innovation tools, may play for improving innovation in the health-care sector. These tools include idea management systems, and collaborative innovation platforms.


What can managers do? At least three steps are suggested by Leid Zejnilovic and the co-authors:

• Assess relevance of current user innovation contributions to the firm ideation process;
• Identify successful experiences that can be amplified, and obstacles that can be addressed;
• Devise a strategy to stimulate employees to behave as user innovators, and also share their solutions, including changing work platforms towards greater flexibility.

July, 2012

What do you think of this article? Share your thoughts and concerns about articles, suggest topics, or contribute with articles and pictures. Please send your feedback to: news@cmuportugal.org .