Collaboration: the old way. Why not?

Just lately I’ve been wondering a lot about stimulating innovation inside companies. It was sparked off by a visit to the Imaginatik user conference in London. I was treated to a number of case studies in which customers saved themselves tens of millions of dollars by adopting Imaginatik’s IdeaCentral approach to collaborative problem solving.

The companies were large – Walmart, Whirlpool and Pfizer, to name a few – who were saving tens of millions of dollars as a result. Imaginatik likes to promote a ten times ROI at every opportunity, which suggests that the cost of the software and services are probably beyond the reach of smaller businesses anyway.

So this got me wondering. Given that a lot of IdeaCentral is similar (on the surface at least) to social software, could cheaper and more generally available tools be used to similar effect? It is web-based. It has places to post your ideas, comment on other people’s, add your profile, make contact, get notifications of updates, voting mechanisms, tagging, search and automatic discovery of similar ideas. Behind the scenes, the set-up and management software and a bunch of add-on modules contribute to this powerful software suite.

Could the bulk of this be done easily using social tools like blogs, wikis, Twitter and suchlike? I’m not sure. While I like these tools and am an active participant in the social computing world, I’m not sure that most people would be ready for an unstructured collection of tools. It would be simply too complicated for the average user to start blogging, commenting, tagging, voting and the like. The management tools are the other side of the coin. It would be difficult, but probably not impossible, to put together some kind system to keep track of everything that’s going on.

I’m now going to suggest something retrograde which might have my social software pals throwing their hands up in horror. What about using a forum? It’s simple to set up, simple to use and you can easily control membership. (I ran a public forum and the spam levels were absolutely ridiculous.) You can also keep the captured knowledge on your own system, usually in a MySQL database which makes for ready integration with other systems.

Users can start new topics, others can comment. They can search. They can be notified of comments. A good clue about value is whether a suggestion has comments. Because it’s being implemented in a business context, so there’s no personal or business advantage in flaming or being silly. Once an idea has collected a few comments, perhaps the management could move it up the list to give it more prominence. (Or maybe some forum software exists to do this automatically, I don’t know.)

For smaller organisations, I would have thought that this would be an simple way to collaborate and it would be a pity if it were to be sidelined by the more shiny toys of recent years.

Of course, I could be talking through my hat. What do you think?

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