Idea Management Systems – the Devil’s in the Detail.

Thanks everyone who came along to last Thursday’s workshop; Idea Management Systems (IMS), the Devil’s in the details. Also special thanks to the Department of Education for providing the venue and to our presenters; James Gibson of the Department of Human Services (DHS), Paulette Patterson of IP Australia, Claire Roennfeldt from the Department of Immigration and Boarder Protection (DIBP) and innovation advocate, James Young.

The workshop kicked off with James Gibson presenting on the DHS’s Idea Management System, iDHS (pronounced ‘ideas’).  The system is in its second year of operation, is WordPress-based and includes a forum for staff discussion and submission of ideas. The DHS has approximately 34 000 staff, which means the scope and amount of ideas collected can be huge, with the system publishing over 1,000 unique ideas in its first year.

Challenges for iDHS include maintaining staff engagement in the process to draw out and develop ideas, connecting ideas to relevant business areas (a common program for very large departments like DHS), and implementing ideas.

Ideas, once discussed are then either rejected as unsuitable, parked for further or later consideration, or built on. There can be any number of reasons for rejection or parking; relevance and practicality is usually the issue for ‘rejection’ and technology and resources for ‘parked’.

Paulette Paterson then discussed IP Australia’s new idea management system, covering off some of the issues that can arise in procuring the right tools when developing an IMS. As a cloud-based system, the IMS had to be Australian owned and private for security and privacy reasons. Paulette also offered insight into the mechanics of the system catering to a significantly smaller organisation with a strong continuous improvement culture.

Claire Roennfeldt from DIBP then discussed their Ideas Management System and process Immivation and JAM, which was developed in response to the 2012 Capability Review’s finding that the department needed to re-invigorate its innovation culture.

The Immigration and Border protection portfolio (including Australian Customs and Border Protection Service) is one of the few Departments where staff are dispersed across very wide geographic locations. This characteristic of the Department presents another unique challenge, which DIBP overcame by also choosing a cloud-based ideas management system.

Immivation JAM offers a forum for staff to share, assess, and provide feedback on ideas. It breaks down silos across business and global lines, where ideas are classified as either not a priority, park for now, more research required, or let’s go!

Once given the green light, ideas are then refined, developed, and then implemented, monitored, adapted and evaluated, with learnings shared across the department’s business lines. Ideas are supported by SES Innovation Champions and taken through to implementation. Any ideas rejected after the refine and design stage are reported to the Executive with explicit reasoning for the rejection explained.

James Young wrapped up with a motivating talk on the importance of the individual in playing a role in developing an innovation culture; he highlighted the need for cross-government collaboration in developing idea and stressed the importance motivation, and knowing that developing an innovation culture is a long term goal. In his previous experience as an APS officer James also discussed how with the IMS he’d run, he’d focused on tasking staff with specific challenges, rather than leaving the request for staff ideas open. The merits of this approach from a systems-operation and organisational culture aspect were discussed.

Then the workshop began.

Attendees broke into four groups and for the remaining hour were tasked to develop an Idea Management System (or refine one they know). In the development of the system they were to consider the needs of three parties; the ‘Idea instigator’, ‘Line management’, and ‘Idea decision maker’, recognising that not all parties may naturally be supportive of an IMS. While this happened our ‘Brains Trust’ presenters circulated the room and assisted.

Each team’s IMS opened with an open forum for the development and discussion of ideas. The merits of anonymous vs namedposting was discussed, one team landing with anonymous ideas posting options but names required for comments. Two groups sent their idea to a leadership/expert group for assessment before it was presented to the final decision maker, and all groups used a combination of the proceed, trash it, park it, and/or more research allocation once the idea had been assessed. All groups also built in a feedback mechanism back to the idea originator, something that had been highlighted as necessary in all the presentations.

One team identified that while it’s important to know the needs of stakeholders, it’s not always necessary or advisable to cater to them. The purpose of an IMS is to flatten the hierarchy in an organisation. It’s the leadership’s calling to all staff to contribute by empowering them with an open channel to express ideas.

Organisational culture and leadership is a key consideration in the development of a successful IMS. An IMS is often born from the leadership level, but an IMS cannot survive on that alone (Departmental Secretaries move around). The function of the IMS must be so in-built into the organisational structure it shouldn’t be considered ‘additional activity’ come budget time. An Idea Management System should be part of an organisation like Human Resources or IT, and simple (or ideally simpler) to use.

This is the unseen way an IMS can contribute to cultural change in organisations. A tool that allows the expression and sharing of a work idea across organisational silos, which is considered as nothing more than part of your working day is a major addition to building an innovative organisational culture.

The take-away from the workshop was despite its revolutionary appeal and technical challenges it’s easy to design an IMS. Collecting, reviewing, rejecting or implementing ideas is a process you can draft it up in under an hour. The challenge of an IMS is longevity. It needs to survive MOGs, leadership changes, and continue to be engaging for staff. This is the devil in the detail. A mix of environmental factors (such as leadership) can create it, but if not created right, it won’t do its job in the long term, the job of affecting cultural change.

If you’d like to discuss your needs for an IMS or reassessing an IMS feel free to contact the PSI team at psi [at] (mail to: )