Feature Story

Channeling Innovation – The 21st Century Way

by Sue Tabbitt

Customer preferences change so quickly now that British companies have taken to social collaboration to capture fresh ideas.

In this 21st century, always-on, instinctively social and collaborative world, organizations need to be able to harness new ideas and get them to market quickly - to maintain and advance their position competitively. The speed of change has accelerated to the point that consumer preferences seem to change overnight. Any business not tuned in to customers' latest interests could find that they are yesterday's news – before they've even realized that a new trend has emerged.

To avoid missing out, companies are investing in new tools and techniques to ensure they are listening to the mood of the market and tapping into new ideas as the earliest stages. Internally, they are finding new ways to inspire and capture new ideas from among all levels of the workforce. Externally, they are devoting more resources to tracking and influencing activity on social networks so that they stay close to customers in real time. The days of scheduled brainstorming are gone.

In the UK, where social media activity is arguably at its most mature, organizations are providing structure to the process of ideas gathering in the form of ‘crowdsourcing' and ‘ideas-sharing portals' – to make sure that nothing is missed, and that the best ideas are escalated and developed with appropriate input and feedback along the way.

The BBC channels staff creativity

Iconic British broadcaster, the BBC, is one of the pioneers of this new approach to ‘idea management'. This year, working with UK technology specialist Wazoku, the BBC's in-house production department has rolled out an online crowdsourcing portal – iCreate – to capture and progress fresh ideas to TV and radio programming.

Wazoku's cloud-based software essentially provides an online ‘pinboard' where staff are encouraged to post up ideas for new shows - not just creative staff, but anyone from across the organization, including trainees and business support personnel. Peers are then invited to discuss and provide feedback on the suggestions via the same forum.  The most talked about ideas are then moved into a more formal development process.

Ailsa Orr, head of BBC TV Production's Innovation Unit, notes that whilst more conventional development processes haven't changed, BBC iCreate harnesses untapped creative talent from right across the BBC to generate a broader pool of ideas - or ‘fire power' - for development teams.

"Our new iCreate platform is central to this new approach to idea gathering," she says. "With Wazoku's Idea Spotlight technology, users can submit programming ideas of their own in response to challenges we set, which get discussed, debated and developed as appropriate."

Although it is still early days for the initiative, Orr reports that her department has already captured more than 300 programming ideas that wouldn't have surfaced otherwise. One of the 50 that have been taken forward (in this case for a radio pilot) is a sitcom about single fathers – an idea mooted by health & safety advisor Christian McNally.

Beer retailer invites customers to brew their own

Even more innovative approaches to idea capture and progression are those which proactively engage customers using social media.

Best of British Beer (BoB) is an online beer retailer which uses social media to interact with customers so that it can stay close to their conversations, proactively seek feedback, and continue to refine its offerings in response to market demand.

The Staffordshire, UK-based business was formed by husband and wife team Will and Gill Sherwin, to realize a passion for ‘real ale' developed during their years working in clubs and bars. The personal touch has been important to the company from the outset; it supplies an extensive range of British bottled beers from over 200 microbreweries and provides detailed brewery information and tasting notes with each order.

In addition to brainstorming with a network of business experts and suppliers, and following reputable bloggers to see which upcoming breweries are popular, BoB has been gone the extra mile to capture customer ideas and to use these to influence new offerings. The latest manifestation of this is a ‘virtual brewery' which gives customers the chance to concoct their own brands of beer. The venture, the fruit of a partnership with neighboring brewery Lymestone, combines consumer demand for the facility to brew their own beer, with crowdsourcing as a means of financing the product development.

Crowdsourcing pays off

The aim was to create a beer that drew ideas from Facebook and Twitter about how customers would like future beer to be brewed.

Interested individuals are invited to become members, giving them the right to ‘vote'. For an initial membership investment of £10 ($15), redeemable against the finished beer, would-be alchemists are given the opportunity to influence how the end product will taste. Bottles are labeled featuring the name of each person who bought a share, and sold via the Best of British Beer website.

"There is currently a huge resurgence in the world of micro-brewed beers. The UK now boasts over 1000 privately owned breweries – the highest level since World War II," says Will Sherwin, BoB's managing director. "There is a trend for people turning their backs on bland, mass-produced imported lagers in favor of more local ales with quality ingredients made in the traditional way. We felt that allowing active participation in the brewing process would appeal to the discerning customer. They get to choose the beer's color, strength, style, flavor, and name. Even decisions such as label design will be made weekly via our website."

Ian Bradford of family-run microbrewery Lymestone explains how the proposition works: "The brewing process can take up to six weeks and there are a number of key decisions to be made along the way to ensure the final product is true to the recipe. We produce a core range of beers and a number of seasonal specials, but the possible variations on a standard glass of beer are almost limitless; this is where we need customer input. Whether it's a different combination of hops, the use of roasted barley, or even the addition of honey and fruit to the brewing process, we need to plan the stages carefully before brewing can begin."

Challenging current retail models

The Virtual Brewery, launched in April this year, is already inspiring new ideas about how beer can be produced and consumed. Sherwin notes that some customers have even proposed a new model of retail, where they pay a brewer to produce their beer and a pub to ‘host' the barrels.

Co-founder Gill Sherwin adds, "The Virtual Brewery has been a huge success. The beer is currently rated 4.6 out of 5 on a beer review website, proving that ‘beer by committee' works! There are another three brews in the planning stages which will be here in time for Christmas."

Innovation critical to new growth

The ability to harness new ideas more spontaneously and naturally is something more companies need to work on. Nesta, an innovation charity in the UK which provides investment and grants as well as mobilizing research and promoting networking and mentoring, recently claimed that investment in innovation by British businesses has fallen by £24bn since the recession began and has not recovered. By contrast innovation delivered 63% of the UK's economic growth between 2000 and 2008, according to Nesta.

Clearly it's time more companies broadened their horizons in their search for new inspiration.


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