Companies Test Out Internal Crowdsourcing For Best Ideas

Some companies are changing their model for picking out the best new ideas to develop. In most industries, the typical path of a new product begins in the R&D department and is led by senior staff. But that’s beginning to change, said USC Marshall School of Business chaired professor Ann Majchrzak, who noted that companies are starting to realize that the R&D department “might not be the best predictor of what is a good idea.” Instead, some companies are experimenting with internal crowdsourcing, which lets any employee pitch an idea.

The Wall Street Journal reports that some organizations give employees virtual money that they can “invest” in what they think are worthy projects, with the goal of “tap[ping] into the pool of unused knowledge from internal innovators, whose ideas can get lost or diluted during the traditional product-development process.”

“I have a limited set of knowledge, and yet there are 150 other people in the group that aren’t being asked [the] questions,” said Cultivate Labs co-founder/chief executive Adam Siegel, whose company offers “a platform to facilitate internal crowdsourcing.” Among the companies experimenting with this model is the nuclear science/technology organization Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), where chief R&D operations officer Dana Hewit called it “a simple way to inspire people.”

Working with Cultivate Labs, CNL set up a platform to allow employees to submit ideas, for projects limited to $100,000 in funding. The first three weeks, CNL received 38 proposals, including “proposed solutions to technical problems, inventions and workflow improvements.”

When an idea was vetted, CNL gave each “eligible staff member” $5,000 in virtual money to invest in the project they deemed the most worthy. The winning projects were “allocated a real budget and developed further.” “Twenty of [last year’s projects] were fully funded,” said Hewit. This year, CNL received 25 to 30 ideas within four days of opening the program to new proposals.

U.K.-based pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is using internal crowdsourcing for small projects and retaining its traditional R&D process. “It’s good to do both,” said AstraZeneca R&D department vice president of transformation Cristina Duran. It received 150 ideas, of which eight got “the lion’s share of support from staff across the company.”

One idea was to digitize a “very mundane but time-consuming” distribution of 70,000 safety letters sent out annually to drug-trial participants. Siegel pointed out that, “small ideas are what the Cultivate Labs platform is all about.” “There are going to be nuggets that you’re going to find, and you’re going to do it inexpensively,” he said.

Encouraging participation can also “help companies attract and retain talent,” said officials at IBM, which built a crowdfunding platform dubbed ifundIT for employees and clients. “Engagement is critical for us, not just in terms of serving clients, but in terms of attracting and retaining talent,” said IBM’s head of talent and engagement practice in Europe, Andi Britt. “[It] means tapping into the collective intelligence of our employees globally, helping them shape the future of our organization.”