Employee Driven Innovation: Insights from Cisco

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Everyone talks about open innovation and external collaboration today, but we should not forget that the most important assets and opportunities lie within the organization.

In this interview, Matt Asman, who is responsible for leading the Innovation Management Office (IMO) at Cisco, shares his views and insights on employee driven innovation. The outset for the interview is that Matt previously led Innovation Europe, one of Cisco’s strategic priorities within the European Theatre.

Innovation Europe was the name given to Cisco’s strategy to promote, support and enable innovation across all areas of the European business. The program focused on a number of strategic priorities designed to improve overall company performance.

These priorities focused on the people, process and technology aspects necessary to create the right conditions for successful innovation. Cisco’s innovation portal, i-Zone played a central role in fostering a culture of innovation whilst harnessing the good ideas that emerged from various, sometimes unexpected areas of the business.

Here we go with the interview. It is a very long one, but it is worth your time as Matt shares some great insights!

Stefan Lindegaard: Matt, thanks for taking the time to share some insights on i-Zone. This is one of Cisco’s key innovation initiatives. Why did you decide to launch it.

Matt Asman: Within the company innovation was singled out as a real business priority focusing on productivity. Cisco had to make sure that if they were to talk about wanting to drive innovation in the business that there would be a strategy to enable it. So in order to avoid a situation of just talking about innovation and see nothing happen Cisco decided to create a strategy and put in place formal mechanisms that allowed innovation to happen. Cisco created opportunities to run innovation, rather than leaving it up to chance.

The second reason not to leave innovation to chance is because Cisco is a big and complex organization and when a company gets to a certain size and complexity, it becomes necessary to deploy good innovation tools and processes that will help to maintain innovation as well as foster a culture of innovation at the same time.

Stefan Lindegaard: How does such an initiative impact the corporate innovation culture? Can you give any examples?

Matt Asman: What Cisco wanted to do was try to maintain and boost the innovation culture. The measures Cisco took included making sure every employee knows what innovation is, know how to innovate, make sure they are given the opportunity to innovate, and that they have the tools to help them. At Cisco employees are rewarded and recognized for their participation and the contributions they make. The culture was very much about just getting everyone involved and giving people and their ideas visibility and then rewarding them for doing it.

The other, slightly peripheral elements of culture were around how to give people opportunities around developing their careers. Big questions were: how do you train people, how do you build innovation into the performance cycle of the company? The company took a blended approach to address the cultural component. More recently I view culture as being around leadership and management. It’s about attitude to risk. It’s about the creativity of the employee and the surrounding environment you create for them. These are new things I consider when looking at creating the right culture within the company.

One of my observations was that a lot of the innovation happens in an invisible way. Innovation was somewhat of an underground railway: people are doing it, but it’s not always visible. So what we wanted to do was to elevate the innovation activity, so that it was above ground and it was visible. That way you could give the people, the best talent, and the ideas, the best ideas, the greatest possible opportunity to be visible within the organization.

That was where i-Zone became useful because it actually gave a platform to help with that. This is an example of how an innovation portal can play a part in supporting an innovation culture.

Stefan Lindegaard: As a company, Cisco seems quite focused on knowing what is going on within the organization. How can you use i-Zone to take the pulse of the organization and make adjustments if necessary? Perhaps you can also share some examples on this.

Matt Asman: We were setting a strategy to target innovation. We would take note of where we wanted innovation to occur and then created categories around those areas of the business for example partners, services, or new technologies. We would try and get people to aim at those targeted categories. The challenge was the catalyst: to get people to innovate in a specific area was the difficult part. To tackle that we would create challenges. Every quarter we would create a challenge in a certain category and put it in front of everyone.

Stefan Lindegaard: I read that i-Zone is linked to the talent development at Cisco. Can you explain how this works?

Matt Asman: What we did first was create an innovation academy that delivered training. I worked with the learning and development group putting together an innovation-training curriculum. The curriculum was later rolled out across multiple locations in the European area. The training was a one-day course that gave skills, tools and techniques on how to innovate.

The other thing we did was rotations into our team. We engaged another group run by HR, it was called the ADP, accelerated development program. The ADP was a group of individuals who are top talents in the company or potential next generation leaders for the company. Three cohorts running at any one time, 12 on each cohort. What we did with those groups was to give them innovation training, a more condensed version. Then they provided us with resources to help us run some of the teams and they also gave us people to help develop projects.

When we came up with some of our best ideas we would give some of these ideas to the ADP group to work on. It was a way of engaging top talent, but it was also a way of developing great ideas inside the company. In some cases getting them to qualify out some of the ideas that weren’t going anywhere was the aim.

We also looked at putting innovation objectives into people’s performance goals, which we struggled with and stretch assignments where people could volunteer their time to another innovation opportunity. It didn’t really go anywhere.

Stefan Lindegaard: One of the key challenges with innovation programs like i-Zone is to get people engaged and not only in the beginning, but over the longer haul. How did you and your team solve this challenge?

Matt Asman: One way to get people engaged was to refresh the people who were involved in innovation. Constantly refreshing the pool of people that were participating in the program, whether formally or informally. Reward mechanisms were another way to keep these people engaged. We created challenges every quarter that people could respond to. New challenges would target new groups of people. Introducing different audiences that were relevant to different challenges at different times would allow for the best variety.

One of the things that we had to do was up the frequency of communication efforts. Using different communication techniques to engage the audience and keep a dialogue open and keep them interested. There was always a challenge sponsor who was the face behind the challenge. The person, who gave the call to action and got people motivated.

Stefan Lindegaard: Cisco has also been running the i-Prize competition for external contributors. What do the two initiatives have in common and how do they benefit each other?

Matt Asman: They are not really that silo-ed. We worked with some of the team that run i-Prize, they were part of the Innovation Europe team, and they sat on the evaluation panels. There was a nice crossover between that part of the business and our part of the business. They had an interest in seeing some of the ideas that were coming through in Innovation Europe; it was another way of getting ideas into their own innovation funnel. We applied the same process for managing innovation as the emerging technology group that run i-Prize.

We actually shared best practices and used a lot of their knowledge and their existing best practices to help run the Innovation Europe program. Likewise, they put it back into their own organization: knowledge, best practice sharing, sharing resources.

Stefan Lindegaard: One of my current focus areas is the use of social media for innovation efforts. In which ways do you apply social media for i-Zone?

Matt Asman: When I think of social media I tend to think of the usual suspects including Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, anything that allows collaboration. From an external point of view, Innovation Europe, because it was an Internal program, it had very little social media activity attached to it. Reflecting to social media internally, we were using i-Zone, which has some functionality that allowed people to collaborate, i.e. posting of ideas.

Beyond that we had pretty limited communication. Internally there were some videos, show and share portal – like YouTube. People would post videos. We had a feed for smart phones. A lot of it revolved around i-zone. The use of the internal YouTube, not much more beyond that.

Stefan Lindegaard: What do you see as the next steps in getting employee-driven innovation to deliver even better results at Cisco?

Matt Asman: What we are doing is much more targeted innovation. Less about random crowdsourcing, much more about targeted innovation that drives impact within the business. Within the business there are several priorities. At the moment one of those is BYOD: Bring Your Own Device. Because it is a business priority it becomes a sort of opportunity to drive innovation, enable innovation.

We engage with an area of the business that is willing to sponsor innovation. We engage some really senior level people within that organization and we tell them that we are an innovation team that will help to delivery business impact for them. We go through an innovation process with them. Quite hands on. Guide them through the process. Aim to generate a lot of insight, identify great opportunities, where we want to generate innovation.

We run a campaign, engage a broad number of people, well communicated, well documented. Build out a smart-zone type portal that will help support the campaign, which will open as the campaign is launched. The campaigns are run for a couple of weeks. At the same time as these campaigns we are also thinking about taking a targeted approach. Bringing employees together and running workshops, maybe external stakeholders join in. What are the best innovation options to carry forward within the business?

One of the key things for success is to engage that group and the leader, getting commitment early on that supports the implementation of the best innovation options that get created. It is a very different approach to i-Zone. Very targeted and very aligned to business priorities. Securing senior leadership buy in and commitment, around implementation. It also involves a broad group of employees at the same time, which can all contribute through a serious communication effort.

Stefan Lindegaard: It is great having many contributors and ideas, but you can also get too much of a good thing. How do you manage the filtering process of ideas in order to get to work on those with the most potential? What key criteria do you use to select those ideas?

Matt Asman: Each category had a team of people in place. Their responsibilities were to handle the ideas in that category. Every second week, category team leaders measure the ideas to key criteria that we had set up. Their responsibility was to pick the ideas they want to take forward. Each team did it on an individual basis. Every quarter, there is a cross-functional meeting. Picking standout ideas out of the hopper and then presenting them to Senior Leadership in the European market.

This was a process of finding, filtering, and giving ideas visibility within the organization. The Senior Leadership Team were there to make final decisions on what ideas to back and the level of funding for each idea. Assessment was continuous.

Stefan Lindegaard: With all the lessons learned, what do you see as the best ways of taking such ideas forward once they have been selected?

Matt Asman: We weren’t really challenged when it came to coming up with great ideas. The process allowed us to select the best ones. We struggled with the implementation stage. Part of the problem was that when ideas were selected, they weren’t necessarily aligned to the area of the business that would adopt it. We would then have to introduce the idea to another area of the business that wasn’t even involved in the process. That met resistance and in some cases we couldn’t find any place for the ideas. Reasonably high failure rate.

We did manage to get some pretty successful results with a bunch of other ideas. The reason we got results was because the passion of the person who came up with the idea. The commitment actually made a difference when driving the idea forward. My team was working with a small investment fund and we were able to invest in developing some prototypes. We were taking the responsibility of development of ideas, rather than giving the idea to the company.

Stefan Lindegaard: How do you strike the right balance between consumer/customer-driven ideas and employee-driven ideas? What do you need to consider on this issue?

Matt Asman: A lot of the ideas were internal and the majority of our ideas were more likely to impact the internal organization rather than customers. The balance favors internal impact and internal ideas, but we were able to create, develop, and deliver some ideas that had external impact. When I look at ideas in the global program now, many of them are executed internally, but the reason we are doing that is to improve how we do business and customer satisfaction. For example when we do something to improve an existing process internally we might ultimately speed up customer response times.

Stefan Lindegaard: What are the key metrics to measure on such an initiative?

Matt Asman: We took two approaches: One looked at measuring innovation, another looked at the overall success of the program and measuring impact against the strategic priorities we put around the programs. We had 5 strategic priorities: people and culture, process, thought-leadership, and the technology we were using. Against those priorities there were a lot of initiatives. With innovation performance we looked at how many ideas we could incubate, generate, implement. With the program performance we looked at how many training courses we could run, how many employees could we train, what is their overall satisfaction.

Metrics were put in place for every single activity we ran. We were looking at how many ideas were presented to the evaluation team. Another program metric was about next generation workforce. We created an innovation tool kit, and measured the utilization of those tools to help measure the engagement.

Stefan Lindegaard: Do you have some key advice for other corporate innovation units working to implement employee-driven innovation programs?

Matt Asman:

• Really understand what innovation means to the company. Understand what they are aiming to achieve.
• Need to ensure that innovation within the org is managed top down, has to have visible leadership support
• Suggest that people should look at creating the right innovation culture. Creating the right environment, risk, and middle management is involved and incentivized.
• Take a good look at how to enable the workforce time, workplace to be creative
• Have mechanisms in place to ensure that the best ideas can be carried forward in the business
• Relentless focus on execution
• Ability to generate new ideas
• Culture right. Leadership in place. Effective process, concept to reality. Well-structured program.

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