Authored By Darin Eich Ph.D.
Electronic ideation — coming up with multiple ideas using a computer and software or web application — offers a powerful new tool to innovators. With Web 2.0 internet technology available, a form of electronic ideation known as online brainstorming is also emerging as a “front end of innovation” tool for innovators.
Capturing ideas in a structured fashion can increase efficiency and streamline the innovation process by making the ideas easier to analyze. Electronic ideation is an alternative to traditional brainstorming within an organization, which often conjures images of lame sessions where the first ideas mentioned are often discussed for a long period of time, criticized ad nauseum, and subjected to political and power interests. Unfortunately, many such brainstorm sessions result in few ideas, because most of the time was spent analyzing the ideas and talking about why they wouldn’t work. In addition, people are hesitant to suggest their own ideas in person, especially creative or unconventional ones. Challenges like this give traditional face-to-face brainstorming a reputation for futility within organizations and their culture. Research shows that the brainwriting (writing ideas instead of saying them) approach to idea generation can be more effective within organizations, perhaps because it diminishes the repressive or stifling effects of corporate culture.
Electronic ideation or online brainstorming combines current technology and the benefits of brainwriting for an effective idea generating approach. Structured brainwriting through electronic ideation can work for groups of people, or communities of interest, who may not be in the same place at the same time. Electronic ideation is a conceptual outgrowth of the anonymous suggestion box. Anonymous suggestion boxes have been around for a long time to solicit humdinger ideas at no risk to the contributor. Now the suggestion box can become the brainstorming table for participants who are specifically invited to participate, overcoming space and time limitations. The challenge, instead of dealing with corporate culture, is to motivate people to respond to an invitation, to log into the brainstorm “room” to suggest their ideas. Electronic brainstorming is a tool that can be used in a variety of ways, producing a new surge in ideas from employees.
When brainstorming online, community of interest and response time must be managed properly; place is less relevant. You can conduct electronic ideation with many brainstormers at once; it is scalable from one to thousands of people. More than 10 people around a brainstorming roundtable are extremely difficult to manage, but you could get 1,000 people to log on and submit ideas on an ideation web page that poses your question. You define the community of interest and the brainstormers you invite to participate. These can be the usual suspects in your department or project team, all people in your company, your customers or a user group, or other people across the globe that could usefully suggest ideas. In a world that is flattening, as Thomas Friedman says, a hosted application gives you the ability to get the perspective and ideas from people anywhere in the world 24/7. Also, on the other end of the spectrum there is tremendous value with having a tool that allows people to record their ideas on their own when they generate them.
Response time matters. You can certainly use the electronic ideation tool on a no deadline basis. But having a set time for participants to contribute ideas is motivating and offers the facilitator a reasonable chance to analyze the contributions. Specifying the time limits in the e-mail invitation is very effective in a virtual brainstorming session. Complete the brainstorm in an hour or a day, and then move on with analyzing, testing and implementing good ideas. You can, of course, open follow-up brainstorm rooms to build on previous rounds of ideation.
Electronic ideation frees participants from spatial constraints. Brainstormers could be anywhere in the world, but you could also conduct a roundtable brainstorm electronically. A formal electronic ideation or online brainstorming tool like BrainReactions.net can even allow you to see fellow brainstormers ideas in real time during the session you create. This offers opportunities to build and extend on ideas and to recharge and spark creativity in new directions. What if you brought people physically together in your conference room or a stimulating location and facilitated a face-to-face brainstorm where people entered their ideas into the online software system? This may be a preferred use of ideation software. Imagine gathering a group of 7 to 10 people around a table. One computer is projecting the brainstorm question and space for ideas on the projector screen. Each person enters his or her own ideas. There is no need for the proverbial flipchart sheets and marker that slows the session down to a crawl. Since idea generators are typing their ideas as they conceive them, the pace of idea generation and the quantity of ideas are greatly accelerated. Since each person has his or her laptop the brainstorm session is no longer slowed by 1920s technology of a flip chart and pen.
When someone has a really good idea they could say it aloud as stimulus for extensions of that idea. The most creative people and the most conventional are often reluctant to share their output. Capturing them electronically avoids the tendency to suppress them out of fear or embarrassment. Ideas from the ends of the spectrum are valuable. The creative ones can spawn great innovation and the seemingly boring ideas are most easily understood and implemented.
I challenge you to open your innovation thinking to establish electronic ideation as a part of your innovation system to employ both the benefits of internet technology and brainwriting methodologies. Think of it simply as a tool to capture ideas on your own in your office on your own time. Consider the possibilities of bringing laptops to the brainstorming table. Idea generation is both art and science. Creativity is heightened in great brainstorms. The productivity of brainstorms can be supported and enhanced using tools that come closest to allowing brainstormers, working individually or in groups, to produce and record ideas at a pace much closer to “mind speed.” In group ideation process there is a high correlation between the quantity of ideas generated and the quality of ideas, so speed truly counts. Electronic brainstorming such as BrainReactions.net is an efficient, intuitive way to produce great ideas.