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“The best ideas come from the ‘shop floor’.” 

How often do you hear this being said?  

I certainly hear this within circles in industries that are more ‘hands-on’, such as manufacturing and construction. These are industries with a large population of the workforce that are out in the field, on the production line, on-site. These people are the heavy lifters and shifters of these businesses. They know their trade, are skilled in delivery and understand the work that the business does better than most. 

One key realization I have had is that so often these employees that are hands-on are often offline. They don’t have access to company systems such as a laptop, phone, and email address.  

This is worrying, particularly when it comes to innovation. If a large proportion of employees in businesses and industries are digitally hidden, then how do you get ideas from them? Going back to that first statement, if this is where the best ideas sit then surely the businesses and industries with this issue are doomed? 

I spend a lot of time with customers discussing their innovation strategies. Talking through processes, stakeholder mapping, communications planning, rewards and recognition, and so on. Each of these, teamed with a great piece of end-to-end innovation management software, are the key to successful innovation. Certainly, within a fully online business. 

So, let’s apply each of these key success factors to a business with an offline community and I’ll provide some tips as to how you engage with and leverage the best ideas from these front-line workers. 

 

Make a Decision on Approach 

Your first decision needs to be around how hard you want to try. This means a discussion of effort vs reward needs to take place. 

For this to happen you need to know your people that are working on the front line. What motivates them? What makes them tick? What are their challenges? You need to understand the impact that your strategy and innovations will have on them. Practice empathy and truly try and understand where they are coming from. 

Once you know this, you have your baseline. You know the strategy that will work to engage with them, and you can now spend the time and resources where they are truly needed. You can even begin to tailor any messaging, platform, and strategy around these people. 

I have seen so many organizations just launch and learn with a strategy to their offline community, and it simply dies. What a waste of time and money! 

Just spend some time thinking and being patient before you rush into anything.  

 

Idea collection method 

Now you know your audience and what they are about, it is time to create the method of enabling ideation from the offline community, and there are three ways I’d recommend tackling this: 

  • Take a digital-first approach. 

This may seem contradictory but hear me out. Just because these people are offline in the sense of your business systems, doesn’t mean they are offline in their everyday lives. In fact, chances are they have a smartphone or internet access in another form. Failing this, they will more than likely have a mobile phone even if it doesn’t have access to the internet. So, leverage this digital capability by trying the following 3 methods: 

  1. Invest in an open innovation tool - open innovation tools are usually used by businesses to leverage the ideas of their suppliers or wider network. Although the target audience work for your organization, treat them as if they are external suppliers and get them to tap into the ideation process via the open innovation tool. 
  1. Use emails - most employees will know how to use this technology so harness this existing knowledge, set up an innovation email address, and get them to email in their best ideas. 
  1. Use text messaging - even further down the digital capability ladder is text messaging. Find a way that those team members can contact you without needing to log into a platform or having internet access or an email account. 

Use digital methods to increase your reach but be flexible about what methods you use. Digital doesn’t have to mean complex. 

  • Take it back to basics 

I am a huge believer in having the digital-first approach but, if this is not an option, why not go for a digital-second approach? By this I mean, why not go back to the traditional suggestion box, postcards, suggestions cards etc. This will then lead to some double-handling of information, but it will open your innovation process up to a much wider audience - an audience that may hold your key to success. 

  • Plan some face-to-face time 

If those that are offline don’t engage with an alternative digital approach or don’t provide ideas in written format, then planning dedicated face-to-face sessions may be the best option for your innovation strategy. Doing this takes away those latent barriers and allows you to have a greater connection with your offline teams. Holding events could be a great way of doing this, such as design thinking workshops and hackathons to help draw ideas from the workforce.  

You don’t necessarily have to make a big deal out of any event, however. Why not just plan some time to meet and chat with the team and understand their challenges? I find asking simple questions is the best tactic here. Ask them what their biggest challenges are, what they’re most proud of, and what the best thing they’ve seen is. You’ll be surprised by the answers, and this will enable you to get buy-in from these offline staff members whilst gaining key insights into their greatest challenges, which can then be used to inform your strategy.  

 

Approach 

Engaging with an offline section of your workforce may seem like a difficult task… maybe even impossible. You may be thinking about how you can possibly contact and communicate with a body of people that fundamentally don’t have access to the usual channels you use as a business. 

You may automatically think that launching a poster campaign or a series of newsletters may be the best way to go. I mean, of course, those that you rarely communicate with will read your content, right?!  

As I mentioned earlier in the strategy piece, you cannot assume that people care about the message you are putting out there and you definitely can’t assume that a well-worded poster campaign will solve all your issues either. You really need to get to know your offline community and understand what resonates with them.  

You need to take it back to basics with your engagement and really focus on how you are going to create touchpoints with the workforce, with the focus of these touchpoints being more face-to-face than hidden behind a screen. But this isn’t easy, especially if you work for an organization that is multinational or spread across a large geographical area. 

This is where it is vital to build a network of champions that you can trust to spread the strategy into the far reaches of the organization. You need to select the right people to do this, and you need to trust them. More than anything though, you need to equip them correctly to get the right message out there. 

This means all your communications to the offline community need to go through these champions, so tailor your communications to suit this strategy. Provide them with updates, key messages, methods for engagement - methods for spreading the message in the way you feel it should be spread. Provide them with an innovation tool kit that they can use to effectively do the work you require of them. Make sure you spend enough time with each of these champions to upskill them and properly prepare them for the work you require of them. 

 

Final Thoughts 

Engaging with this difficult-to-reach but incredibly important demographic isn’t easy. As they are ‘offline’ in the business sense they often feel left out and less part of the business operations, so once contacted they may not be the most welcoming or naturally engaged. 

It is up to you to build those bridges by: 

  • Being empathic to their roles, challenges, and circumstances 
  • Using a flexible, hybrid approach to technology 
  • Using old-school, simple methods to make submitting ideas and getting involved as easy as possible 
  • Understand the importance of face-to-face discussion 
  • Equip and use your network 

As long as the messaging is right, these methods and considerations will go a long way to tackling the difficulties you may have with gaining ideas, engagement, and insights from your front-line workers. 

 

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