“Innovation Insight” is a blog series written by SRC’s CEO and President, Dr. Laurier Schramm, which aims to shed light on the importance of innovation in driving economic, societal and environmental growth.
Much has been written on ways to engage employees and on ways to encourage and foster innovation within an organization. One approach that can help with both is holding annual internal symposia at which employees can see and discuss the technology development and commercialization projects others within the organization are working on. The 3M company seems to have pioneered this approach, through what they call an annual “Tech Forum.”
What is an “Innovation Forum?”
At SRC, we have adapted and adopted the spirit of 3M’s approach into what we call our annual Innovation Forum. It’s like a technology trade show, with posters and displays that frequently involve mock-ups, working models, and engineering or production prototypes.
Naturally, some of our goals are to encourage and support technology development, technical excellence, and innovation. Our Innovation Forum is also aimed at helping employees gain a broad awareness of other employees’ skills and projects across the company, so they can move beyond silo-thinking and think about how to take know-how from one area and apply it to another.
Keeping it Internal
All teams working on new technology to benefit SRC’s lines of business or internal operations are invited to apply, and the Innovation Forum is purely internal, so participants can openly discuss all aspects of the work being presented, with no intellectual property issues in the way. This is so important for enabling an open exchange of ideas that we continue to resist requests and opportunities to invite “outsiders.”
These events are really about the people and ideas more than the technologies per se. Through each Innovation Forum, our employees become more aware of the other employees in the company, their knowledge, skills, and interests, what they are working on, how to connect with them, and how to engage them in their current and future projects.
Trade Show Style
We have found that a trade show format provides a great vehicle for illustrating our employees’ creative and inventive projects. One of the positive surprises is that these events have helped develop our employees’ trade show skills as well.
Another finding is that a little friendly competition really helps boost engagement and creativity. At each Innovation Forum we offer two prizes: one for the best team effort that displays the most promising innovation (serving internal and/or external clients), and one for the best overall display/presentation. The winners are determined by simple tablet-style voting by all employees attending the event. The prizes themselves are additional company funding to enable the teams to further develop their projects.
Some of the other Innovation Forum lessons-learned include:
- It works: these have become positive, inspiring, energized events that help build awareness and team spirit.
- Don’t underestimate the untapped wells of employee creativity and dedication (Tweet that!): some of the presentations have been as creative as the technologies being showcased.
- Creativity can breed creativity: we’ve had several cases where employees discovered that their current problems could be solved by colleagues within our company. We’ve also had cases where teams of employees not only discovered each other at the Innovation Forum, but the networking led to new collaborations following the event.
Both 3M and SRC have found that bringing employees together in an open and safe environment to share their skills and projects across the company is a great way to raise awareness, stimulate creative thinking, build engagement, forge internal linkages, and encourage and foster innovation.
What other best practices are you aware of that can encourage and foster innovation?
Further reading: “3M Innovation Story: Uncommon Connections, Innovative Solutions,” 3M Inc., 2011.