Employee Ideas: A Good Source of Innovation – If Companies Will Listen

Call me jaded, but hearing that companies are now mining their employees for innovative ideas makes me chuckle.

That’s not because it’s a funny idea. Tapping into what your workers think and the notions they have about new products, or innovations, or simply ways to improve the organization, makes all the sense in the world.

But my experience is that very few companies actually do it, and even those that have tried over the years always seem to find a way to make it a less than useful experience for both the organization and the employee alike.

The bottom line is, asking your employees for ideas raises the very real expectation that good employee ideas will be acted upon and rewarded. What makes me laugh is the notion that companies have suddenly discovered all of this, because my longtime observation is that organizations generally don’t do very well with either of those two things.

Can employee ideas help an organization?

The Wall Street Journal had this recent story that seemed to indicate that there is a movement going on among some employers to openly encourage workers to offer up more ideas that can ultimately help the organization be more successful. As the Journal wrote:

Companies are moving beyond the suggestion box.

In an effort to cut costs and create new products and services, firms are seeking ideas from their own employees on everything from money-saving strategies to product design. To encourage participation, some are holding contests, voting and setting up “ideas kiosks.”

It’s often the employees — rather than outside consultants — who know a company’s products and processes best. According to management experts, many of the most innovative companies tend to solicit ideas from staff throughout the organization, not just the executive ranks.

But it’s often hard for rank and file workers to be heard: Research has found that the average U.S. employee’s ideas, big or small, are implemented only once every six years, says Alan G. Robinson, a professor at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.”

Two points well worth noting

I’ve been critical of a lot of the slipshod thinking behind many Journal stories recently, but two spot on points jump out of this one:

  1. Yes, employees DO know a lot more than outside consultants about a company’s products and processes. Smart organizations would be wise to turn to their own people first for ideas before pulling in an overpriced consultant with some underwhelming and obvious ideas, but that generally doesn’t happen. Why? Because like in so many things in life, familiarity breeds contempt. Outside consultants, however short-sighted and brain dead they might be, always seem to offer something that seems a lot more special than what an organization has toiling in its midst, right under the corporate nose.
  2. It’s hard, if not impossible, for rank and file workers to be heard by the managers and executives above them. The University of Massachusetts survey that shows that organizations only implement the average employee idea once every six years is telling because it shows how infrequently employers really implement the best thinking bubbling up out of their own workforce. Once every six years? That tells me there is little companies are doing to mine the best ideas of their employees.

So, you can call me skeptical about this new trend, although the WSJ says that “more companies are realizing the value of their workers’ input,” and they list some examples of organizations doing just that.

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Is there more than anecdotal evidence?

I’m happy to hear that, because listening to employees is not only a smart talent management practice, but also harnesses the collective wisdom of the entire organization for the greater good of the company. That’s all good.

Still, these examples of forward-thinking organizations mining their employees for great ideas strikes me as largely anecdotal and exceptions to the rule. With just about every survey of the workforce showing employee engagement at record low levels with workers ready to bolt for the next good job offer, it’s clear that there isn’t much mining of workers best thinking going on because if there was, employee engagement scores would probably be higher.

You should read the Journal story and decide for yourself. 

As for me, I’ll keep watching to see if this latest “trend” discovered by The Wall Street Journal actually holds water in the long term, or perhaps, if it turns out to be just another example of boosterish journalism blowing a small sample entirely out of proportion.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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1 Comment on “Employee Ideas: A Good Source of Innovation – If Companies Will Listen

  1. What if the employee believes the idea is big enough that they don’t want to just give it away? Where does one learn how to negotiate protections and guarantees?

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