Organizations Capitalize on Collective Intelligence

Crowdsourcing can help improve service, increase sales and promote engagement.

ORLANDO, Fla. - Businesses are using collective intelligence to speed up company growth, improve efficiency, enhance products and services, and strengthen the employee environment, according to new research from IBM.

Over the next five years, 80 percent of chief marketing officers (CMOs) said they must improve their ability to develop deep relationships with customers and integrate clients into product and service development, said Denis Brousseau, vice president and global leader, organization and people, at IBM during an IBM Connect general session on Jan. 17 in Orlando. Eighty percent of CMOs also said they must tap into greater intelligence and gain more insight in order to fuel corporate growth.

To accomplish these goals, however, organizations must improve their ability to share knowledge and collaborate, according to 70 percent of executives surveyed in an IBM study, Brousseau said.

"In order to succeed, an organization needs to be able to capitalize on collective intelligence," he said.

There are four primary methods that organizations use to encourage input from their communities, such as employees, customers and partners, said Brousseau. These include contests and challenges, collaborative design markets, virtual ideation and communities of practice, he said.

"When we talk about social business, the first thing that comes to mind is collaboration," said Brousseau. "But there is also a place for competition. It's applied when you think a competitive environment will give you better business outcomes."

Collective Intelligence in Action

Seeking new ways to engage its readership around the world and increase attendance at its Ideas Economy conference series, The Economist magazine launched a contest based on a series of challenges that asked its audience to develop new ideas around various topical issues such as health care information and biologic solutions for climate change. In conjunction with online crowdsourcing firm InnoCentive, The Economist gave monetary prizes to challenge winners and interviewed them during live events.

In addition to engaging its audience, The Economist garnered public and media attention, Brousseau said. Challenge winners not only took home money prizes, but they also received media visibility and exposure to potential investors to turn their concepts into reality, he added.

"The quality and the volume of [responses] we got back were just extraordinary. In each of the cases so far, we've had very high quality responses. People take the InnoCentive process seriously, and respond accordingly," Justin Hendrix, vice president of business development and innovation at the magazine, said in a statement.

For its part, purse-designer Coach hoped to win over the hearts and wallets of younger consumers when it launched a collaborative design market initiative to design a new Coach tote bag. Six million people checked out the contest, and consumers submitted 3,200 designs, said Brousseau. In six weeks, 100,000 people voted on the top candidates.

"They were able to increase their sales based on the winning designs they put into production," he said. "For the winners-and this is an area I think Coach got really right-if your design was selected, you had the option of attending a launch party at a retail store or a $2,500 shopping spree."

Wanting to improve its services, Citi's Global Transaction Services division used an approach called virtual ideation and dialog to tap the expertise of its worldwide employees. In addition to soliciting workers' ideas and opinions, this process helped the organization unite employees and encourage a feeling of connection among people separated by geography and language. Twenty thousand people participated over 48 hours; on average, participants spent four hours contributing to a forum about improving customer service, said Brousseau. Employees felt good about Citi because executives sought their opinions, communicated with employees, and used some of their ideas to enhance services, he said. This approach also helped individuals connect with their colleagues.

"It's an opportunity for you to make new connections, to link to colleagues you may not have known," Brousseau said.

Communities of practice typically begin at a grassroots level, he said. CEMEX, a global provider of building materials, such as cement, uses this approach for its global-innovation initiative. Within one year, the program grew to 2,000 participants in nine global initiatives, said Gilberto Garcia, head of innovation at CEMEX, during IBM Connect. There are 11,000 unique participants in more than 350 active communities who discuss topics, such as environmental concerns, reducing capital expenditures and alternative fuels.

"It was really an experience when this started to grow virally," said Garcia.

Tools for Success

To spur participation, organizations can use distribution questions and answers; "gamification" and forecasting, said Brousseau.

"These ideas are not mutually exclusive," he said. "You can mix and match."

Businesses also must consider knowledge, diversity and disruption when they seek participants for their collective intelligence programs, said Brousseau. Diversity is important to ensure a variety of views and opinions, and companies also need participants to be disruptive-or willing to challenge the status quo, he added.

Selecting the right awards is important, too. Financial incentives often attract a wider external audience, whereas organizations may choose gift cards or office perks to encourage employee participation, said Brousseau. In some cases, people may join solely for the sense of engagement, he said.

"There has to be a sense that there's a mutual benefit and that ideas are going to be acknowledged," said Brousseau. "Make sure you monitor behavior. People need to have a sense that rudeness and bad behavior will not be tolerated. Make sure you address the resistance that is going to be natural within your organization and working with your customers and suppliers."