Ideas management systems

What is an ideas management system?

An ideas management system (IMS) is a formal process by which ideas can be recorded, filtered and selected for implementation. Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service recommended that agencies should be timely and smart adopters of ideas management systems.

How does an IMS assist the innovation process?

Ideas are the key ingredient in the innovation process but without a mechanism for managing them, it is difficult to prioritise innovation efforts and to channel innovation activity into the areas it is needed most. The following identifies how an IMS can assist at each stage of the innovation process.

  • Idea generation (finding, adapting or creating the ideas) - An IMS can encourage staff to put forward ideas. An IMS can help in the process of refining and iterating those ideas by allowing others to share their perspectives and input.
  • Idea selection (picking which ideas to use) - By letting others be aware of suggested approaches, ideas can be tested early through sharing of experiences, limitations and impacting factors, and possible improvements to the idea
  • Idea implementation (putting the ideas into practice) - An IMS can assist implementation if it records lessons learnt, identifies options that have and have not worked, and codifies what made the implementation successful
  • Sustaining ideas (keeping the ideas going) - An IMS can assist the embedding of ideas by outlining the need for an idea and providing a reminder of the problems faced before it came about
  • Idea diffusion (spreading the ideas and the insights about them) - By recording the ideas and the resulting action other areas facing a similar or parallel issue may be better able to see potential solutions

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What does an IMS involve?

An IMS can take a range of forms, from a simple suggestions scheme to a national collection of ideas from external stakeholders. It can be a simple spreadsheet arrangement at a team level or a Web-based site accessible to all. An IMS can involve:

  • A means for soliciting ideas;
  • A means for capturing ideas;
  • Tools that allow people to build on submitted ideas;
  • Recognition of those involved;
  • Idea review tools for determining which ideas should be pursued; and
  • Reporting tools.

A range of example IMSs have been included.

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Focus

An IMS can potentially focus on two different facets of the innovation challenge.

  • Problems – it can ask participants to identify problems
  • Opportunities/Potential solutions – it can ask contributors to submit new ideas about how to tackle specific problems

A focus on problems can have the advantage of identifying issues but may also encourage a perception that responsibility for fixing them lies somewhere else, rather than being a cooperative process. A focus on opportunities can bring to light new ideas that may tackle underlying problems or issues, but may also bring to light ideas that are out of scope. A call for ideas can also encompass both aspects.

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Common problems

Evidence suggests that many IMSs are established and then run into problems over time. Below are some of the potential problems you should consider when thinking about introducing an IMS into your organisation.

  • Parameters – it is not clear what limits and constraints the system is operating under. This can lead to expectations that all ideas will be dealt with or that every idea is in scope. On the other hand too narrow a focus may mean that potentially valuable ideas go unheard.
  • Filtering – the process does not assist filtering of ideas. No matter how good the ideas put forward, no organisation will have enough resources to implement every good idea – it needs to pick which are the best for it.
  • Selection and implementation – following on from filtering, the system should link to a decision-making process for choosing which ideas will be implemented. A risk is that a system is set up with no clear process for how ideas will be considered, how ideas that will be implemented will be chosen, or how the implementation of those ideas links into decisions about resources.
  • Low-participation – the IMS receives too few ideas or too little involvement. This may be due to a number of factors including scepticism about the process, a lack of clarity about the process, system complexity, or because the link between the process and the strategic direction of the organisation is unclear.
  • Recognition/Reward – idea proponents and those involved in implementing ideas are not recognised.
  • Disenfranchised – the idea is separated from the proponent. If idea proponents are disenfranchised from their idea, they may disengage from the IMS process. While idea proponents may not have the appropriate skills or experience to implement their idea, they may still be able to play a role in some aspect of the implementation.

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Desirable features

The following features may help limit the most common problems.

  • Transparency - It can be useful for participants to be able to see what happens to their ideas, any reasons why their ideas are not acted upon, and for others to be able to see what ideas have been put forward, adopted or rejected
  • Collaboration - By having a transparent forum, participants can see ideas that have been put forward that might have relevance to them and allow them to collaborate on ideas where there is a common problem or situation and to improve the ideas being put forward
  • Iteration - An open forum means that others can suggest improvements to ideas or point out concerns or potential issues with its implementation. Alternatively responses to ideas can be incorporated and the proposal adjusted to address those concerns. Such discussion can allow for iteration of the ideas and for ideas to be built upon
  • Prioritisation - Where a number of ideas are put forward and in an environment of limited resources there will always be an issue of determining which ideas should be investigated or implemented first. An IMS can assist this process by allowing others to comment on ideas and indicate whether they think the idea is relevant or worthwhile. This can help give a sense of which ideas have the most support and are viewed as the most important to investigate
  • Voting - On a similar note, a feature that allows voting or an indication of support for ideas can be a useful means of gathering contextual data about an idea and an assessment of support for it
  • Knowledge Management - An IMS can allow ideas, their critiques or assessment, and the responses to be codified and stored. This can help prevent ideas being proposed multiple times, and encourage ideas being built upon rather than repeated. It can also help to ensure that solutions to particular problems are visible and can be more easily adopted by other areas as needed
  • Support - Participants are unlikely to have all the relevant skills, knowledge and experience to put forward a ‘perfect’ idea. Consideration might be given to identifying avenues of support, whether this be existing resources on projects/processes or individuals/groups that are willing to assist and their relevant areas of expertise
  • Mandate - An IMS with a clear mandate and connection with relevant planning and authorisation processes will be viewed more credibly than one that is seen as an add-on. A system can benefit from an explicit purpose and clear high-level support
  • Constraints - An IMS may want to include a clear explanation of the limits of the system. As well consideration about how to manage the expectations of participants may be appropriate
  • Involvement - Idea proponents may want to be involved in the development and implementation of the idea. It may be helpful for the system to identify how that will happen

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Checklist

The below is a checklist of issues that might be considered before implementing an ideas management system.

Prior to Introduction

  • Is there high-level sponsorship of the process and understanding of how the system will support the innovation processes of the organisation?
  • Is there a clear decision-making process for assessing the ideas that will come forward?
  • Is it known how ideas chosen for implementation will be resourced?

Communication

  • Is there a communication strategy for promoting the system?
  • Does the communication strategy identify why this is being done and what will happen to ideas?
  • Is it clear what level of feedback will be given to ideas?

Recognition

  • Is there a system for recognising idea proponents?
  • Is there a recognition system for those who contribute to the idea process in other ways (e.g. commenting, collaborating, assisting with implementation)?
  • Has it been decided at which point in time idea proponents will be recognised? (e.g. when the idea is put forward, when an idea is chosen for implementation, when an idea has been successful implemented, when the idea achieves its intended outcomes)

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Further reading

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IMS Examples

The following are an indication of some of the different forms that ideas management systems can take and the different processes used.

Australian Government Department of Agriculture – I-GEN

I-Gen stands for innovation generation. I-Gen is the Department of Agriculture ‘innovation’ initiative that encourages staff at all levels to come up with ideas that improve the way DAFF operates and to drive their idea forward. I-Gen provides the tools and support to convert ideas into projects. I-Gen began and was developed from the grass roots level over a couple of years by two non-SES people before gaining senior management support. This was in response to the issue that within the Australian Public Service many people have innovative ideas but there are few avenues to develop and implement them. I-Gen fits with the Australian Government’s innovation policy agenda and the Australia Public Service Commissioner’s drive for an innovative public service. I-Gen projects have been successfully trialled in some divisions within the Department in Canberra and the regions for a few years. I-Gen aims to generate a culture of innovation within the Department of Agriculture. Its key principles and components include:

  • support and linkages for people with ideas
  • a systematic and coordinated approach to manage ideas
  • tools to facilitate innovation, enabling ideas to develop into projects and outcomes
  • a mentor system to support the proponents of ideas
  • a single repository for innovative ideas
  • a means to assess and review the state of innovation in the department.

An I-Gen site on Mylink provides the tools to help staff develop their ideas into projects, including: a proposal template; project guidelines; and a list of mentors with specialist skills who have volunteered to provide advice on specific aspects of I-Gen proposals. Each division and region has a non-SES I-Gen coordinator who will be the first point of contact for anyone needing help using the I-Gen process. Two staff from the Canberra office work full-time on the I-Gen initiative. They report regularly on I-Gen’s progress to DAFF’s executive. The Secretary is encouraging all DAFF staff to convert their ideas into projects using I-Gen.

Australian Government Department of Industry – Ideas Central

Ideas Central is a simple pilot internal IMS built on the Department’s SharePoint platform. The Department has chosen a rounds based approach where staff are asked for ideas around a specific topic. The first two topics have been reducing red tape and stakeholder communication. Staff can submit ideas, comment on the ideas of others, and edit their suggested ideas to build on the feedback of others and encourage collaboration. The ideas are then reviewed by a group from across the Department who recommend a shortlist. Ideas are responded to with progress updates or an explanation of why the idea did not go ahead.

US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has introduced IdeaLab “a web-based, peer-to-peer network that was created to break through barriers and harness the collective wisdom of CDC employees stationed around the world. IdeaLab enables employees to use their insights and experiences to help colleagues build and implement high-impact solutions to important public health challenges.”

US Transportation Security Administration

The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has an IMS, IdeaFactory, which empowers their large and dispersed workforce to submit and collaborate on innovative ideas to improve TSA. “IdeaFactory is participatory, collaborative and transparent. It is a website that allows TSA employees to develop, promote, and improve innovative ideas for programs, processes, and technologies and share them directly, without filter, to the entire TSA community.”

US Coast Guard

The US Coast Guard has developed a guide that outlines their innovation process and the five stages involved - Submit idea; Initial review; Primary review; Classification/Action; and Final disposition.

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