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Fertile Soil For Innovation

Innovation doesn’t just happen and good design doesn’t jump out of thin air. Great ideas and products spring from environments that foster the innovation process.

How a social intranet connects employees and ideas.

Innovate faster and better. That’s the grand imperative so many companies face in today’s global, ever-changing market. But innovation doesn’t just happen and good design doesn’t jump out of thin air. Great ideas and products spring from specific types of environments that foster the innovation process.

For a product design company that environment includes company culture and the tools available for communicating and collaborating. If you can marry the right type of company culture with an open, collaborative social intranet, you can build rich soil for growing innovative ideas.

Enter Continuum, on a Mission to Innovate

Continuum, a global design consultancy, creates “experiences that improve people’s lives and drive business innovation.” Examples include the Reebok Pump and Proctor & Gamble’s Swiffer Sweeper.

But beyond designing products and services, Continuum also engages with clients to help them build the culture and internal structures needed to foster innovation within their own organizations. Continuum calls it “organizational innovation.”

The imperative to innovate is built into Continuum’s DNA. But after extensive growth in the 2000s, Continuum needed to commit afresh to fostering innovation.

Continuum focused on a two-pronged approach:

  1. Foster an environment of trust where designers feel safe failing early, which helps them build bright ideas faster.
  2. Set up a flexible, social intranet to help employees connect and share ideas easily, around the globe.

Trust & Failure at Root of Innovative Culture

Most companies don’t tolerate bad ideas and create environments where employees are afraid to pitch a concept that isn’t perfect. But Continuum embraces failure as a critical part of the innovation process.

Explains Continuum’s COO Chris Michaud, “Innovation is fundamentally a risky business. You can’t be innovative without failing. So, rather than worry about failing, we teach employees to learn to embrace failure, to learn to fail faster, and to fail early in the process. We teach them to fail forward, to quickly prototype their best ideas, test them, and figure out how to make them better.”

Continuum builds an environment of trust where designers feel safe putting forth imperfect ideas without fear of losing their jobs or being kicked off the project team. This sort of trust rests on strong personal connections with other employees and the open flow of ideas.

Solution: A Social Intranet

In order to help employees build connections with each other and share knowledge easily, Continuum realized it needed an inviting, collaborative intranet. In 2009 they started looking at different software options and decided on ThoughtFarmer, which actually coined the term “social intranet”.Continuum picked the ThoughtFarmer social intranet solution because of how easy it made it for any employee to publish content and for its flexibility in moving content around.

Traditional intranets contain basic company information and present one-way corporate communication. But modern social intranets make it easy to have top-down, bottom-up, and peer-to-peer communication. Social intranet software finds inspiration in the most popular social software like Facebook, blogs and wikis, and repurposes key social features for business-specific uses.

"It takes two things to make an intranet social," says Chris McGrath, co-creator of ThoughtFarmer. "It takes authorship -- the ability for everyone to create content -- and connections -- the ability to see the people behind the content and to connect with them in some meaningful way."

Connecting & Sharing to Speed Innovation

Another central tenet in Continuum’s theory of innovation: Two or more brilliant minds are always better than one at coming up with successful solutions to design and innovation challenges. Better still if the brilliant minds come from disparate backgrounds, with different points of view.

On their intranet Continuum allows any employee to post news to the homepage. Their intranet, called “Orange” after Continuum’s corporate color, has a homepage news section titled “Fresh Squeezed,” where any employee can add a post with just a few clicks. This allows employees around the globe to share exciting news about projects, clients, or ideas, and reinforces the sense of a trusting work environment. Virtually every page of the intranet allows commenting, which leads to valuable discussions and insights that can happen anywhere.

Orange also makes it easy for any employee to set up interest groups. About 140 groups have sprung up so far, some based on shared personal passions, some on practice areas or professional disciplines. Participation in the groups helps employees make connections across geographies, which helps build trust, Michaud says. The groups are also forums that bring disparate thinkers together and build new knowledge.

“Since Orange came online, more people have been able to access the knowledge residing in individuals, but also the contribution to that knowledge has grown in some really wonderful ways,” Michaud says. “And that means we’re better at doing our client work.”

A Marriage of Culture & Tools

Innovation isn’t about software, it’s about culture. Once you have that culture, though, the right kind of intranet can help innovation thrive.

Continuum made a commitment to nurturing the kind of culture where employees could succeed. They inspire trust among colleagues, foster knowledge sharing, and have found a social intranet that supports their unique culture and drive for innovation.

Monica Krake is Principal and Communications Director of The Social Agency, a pr & social media marketing agency based in Vancouver, Canada. Find her at [email protected] @social_agency or