feedback from employees around the world. In these and other cases, the implicit logic was: Build it, and they will come. Both IBM and RBS had considerable success in attracting interest, but the overall story was much more mixed. Some on-line forums really helped to galvanize their company’s innovation efforts. Others ended up underused and unloved.What are the biggest problems with developing online innovation forums? The first is that the forum doesn’t take off. It’s usually quite straight-forward to get people to check out a new site once or twice, but they need a reason to keep coming back. As MyFootballClub found, the risk is that the novelty of an innovation forum will wear out pretty quickly and participation will dwindle. A manager at Roche Diagnostics observed: “Our hope that our internal technology-oriented people would gravi-tate to using this type of tool was completely unfounded. We really had to push people (via an electronic marketing campaign) to involve them in suggesting solutions to the six problems we identi-fied.” Equally, managers at Mars and UBS found their innovation efforts stalling after promising starts. One said: “We probably underestimated the communications needed. We were good up-front, but learned that continuous communications is vital. We had to counter some skepticism, to create the belief that something would happen.” The second risk is that, like Obama’s Citizen’s Briefing Book, the ideas that get posted are off-topic, half-baked or irrelevant. All the managers we spoke to acknowledged that they had to work hard to “separate the wheat from the chaff.” Many of the ideas put forward were parochial or ill-informed, and few people took the trouble to build on the ideas of others. The notion that the good ideas would be picked up by others and rise to the top rarely worked out.So what should you do to avoid these problems? The most important point is to understand the types of interaction that occur in online forums, so that you use them in the right way. If you are looking for creative, never-heard-before ideas, and if you want people to take responsibility for building on one an-other’s ideas, then a face-to-face workshop is your best bet. But if you are looking for a specific answer to a question, or if you want to generate a wide vari-ety of views about some existing ideas, then an online forum can be highly efficient. (See “Questions That Work — and Don’t — in Online Innovation Fo-rums” for examples.)Takeaway:Online forums are not a panacea for dis-tributed innovation. Online forums are good for capturing and filtering large numbers of existing ideas; in-person forums are good for generating and building on new ideas. Smart companies are selec-tive in their use of online forums for innovation.
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MIT Sloan School of Management, MIT Sloan Management Review