Innovating at the grassroots

By: | Updated: December 21, 2015 1:14 AM

The framework of grassroots innovation also changes the qualitative nature and impact of solutions to make them more relevant, more directed and more meaningful for their audience

In practically every kind of business transaction, it’s the customer who calls the shots. And the reputation of a brand is built not just by its owner, but by its users. Today, everyone—from users to advisors of usage—is a self-styled creator of content, related to the offerings they purchase, and therefore a creator of purchase-influence as well. And when someone needs anything, from funding to advice to holiday accommodation, they simply source it from someone else.

Clearly, decentralisation is everywhere. So then, when it comes to evolving products and services, when it comes to improving these offerings and innovating, why must enterprises still cling to the notion that they need a central, all-powerful think tank to drive their innovation? Isn’t it time to usher in a democratic culture of innovation, where it is everybody’s business and everyone’s responsibility to think of ways to build and grow value? What could be more powerful, more compelling, than a grassroots movement of innovation, where every individual—every employee within the enterprise, across rank and file—is encouraged to experiment with ‘everyday, personal’ ideas for innovation within the scope of business as usual?

Should that happen, we’ll have got the perfect setup for innovation going viral, where it can be applied, replicated and reapplied in not one, not two, but in thousands of instances across the enterprise. All the while with the leaders in the organisation gently mentoring the process with timely evangelisation, showcasing case studies and celebrating the champions. This goes a long way to catalyse the process and creates a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Social platforms, like Yammer, can be used smartly within the enterprise to facilitate this and transform mainstream conversations, without the need for the innovation agenda to be forcefully mandated, supervised and tracked.

But there is also a need for a framework that provides broad guidelines to orient and steer the enterprise innovation agenda meaningfully. While the idea of ‘templated innovation’ is counter-intuitive and almost an oxymoron, this framework will serve as a directional guide post without restrictively wiring the thinking process. This articulation, when well thought through, will work to keep the company’s innovation to-dos from degenerating into unfruitful chaos. One suggestion is for the framework to be something like this:

Look, learn and improve: Encourage every individual to look outside his or her narrow frame of reference, at other functions within the organisation, other organisations within the industry and finally, at other industries for ideas they can adopt.

Make ‘what’ improvements: Make it a part of the organisation culture to embolden every person…to build their creative confidence so they may ask what more, what other things they can do within their current engagement to bring more value to it.

Seek out ‘how’ improvements: There’s usually a better way to do even those things that are being done pretty well.

Acknowledging this truth often makes people see efficiency opportunities in their ongoing projects that they were blind to before.

Clearly articulate business value: To take innovation from a segment of one to the level of the enterprise, it is necessary to spread the word and get the audience to buy in. Individual innovators must therefore demonstrate the value of each improvement and innovation quantitatively and substantively, in business terms, to the business.

Disseminate the knowledge: Following from the above, it is equally necessary to share one’s innovation capital with others, so that they may redeploy it within their contexts to set off an innovation chain reaction.

When an enterprise embraces a framework of this kind it doesn’t merely increase the rate of innovation, it also succeeds in percolating a culture of innovation down to the last link in its value chain. And when every employee is an innovator, the result is innovation at unheard of scale. That said, this is not only about increasing the ‘quantity’ of innovation. Think about that statement using the following illustration. When the people at the front end of the enterprise have a stake in innovation, won’t they in all likelihood try to find solutions for the customers they serve?

When such intentions start to add up, bit by bit, they will take the enterprise closer and closer to the customer until there is zero distance between the enterprise and its clients. Hence this framework of grassroots innovation also changes the qualitative nature and impact of solutions to make them more relevant, more directed and more meaningful for their audience.

We, at Infosys, work with a leading global bank to build and support several of their mission-critical core applications. One of these systems is used by their tellers. Tellers typically perform various functions at the counter, like, swiping debit/credit cards, printing papers, validating currency notes, etc. And the teller system interfaces with a custom USB keyboard with integrated card readers, Pin Pad VeriFone devices, Olivetti printers, and even currency counting and dispenser machines. So, it is critical that the system that supports the teller desk also integrates seamlessly with these peripheral devices. This meant that the integration testing of these devices with the teller system had to be performed on location—and that implied that someone had to travel to the client location to perform all these tests manually.

One engineer on the project team, who maintained the teller system, first mooted the idea of automating this testing. The team first evaluated a process for automation, and proposed an approach to adopt a robotic arm for peripheral device test automation. The team soon added functionalities to the automation to perform swiping of cards, optical character recognition of paper forms and currency and currency counting. This significantly reduced operations costs while also freeing up people supporting the project to focus on other critical activities.

This is just one anecdote about one innovation by one enterprise that embraced the zero distance innovation framework and went on to make a big contribution to its client. The mind boggles at what might happen if more and more enterprises were to follow the example.

The writer is executive vice-president and head of global delivery at Infosys

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