A message from the frontline

Every member of staff in a company, whatever their level of operation, can bring valuable ideas to the table, as long as there is an effective system for their suggestions to be heard. By Ian Whiteling

Only 20% of UK companies’ ideas come from staff, despite the country’s best performing organisations generating 90% of their ideas from their workforce, according to research conducted last year by engagement technology company Crystal Interactive, as part of its Human Touch Report.

The report also reveals a significant effect on employee motivation, with staff in organisations where ideas are generated shown to be ten times more likely to feel that their input is valued.

Mike Branson, managing partner of design agency Pearlfisher agrees that this is key to business success. “Increasingly, employees are looking for a meaningful connection to the companies they work for – to the people, the brands, the values and philosophy,” he says. “With this alignment comes a greater sense of ownership and emotional investment. Great ideas are implemented when people feel personally involved.”

Pearlfisher recently brought its London and New York teams together at a special event in India to generate ideas to take the business forward. “The trip gave us an amazing wealth of ideas and experiences, but perhaps even more importantly there was a personal commitment from every single person in the company to the ideas that emerged,” says Branson.

By involving staff in the solutionfinding process, companies can create advocates for change. As Simon Lethbridge, experience director of live marketing agency Jack Morton Worldwide, puts it: “Staff who really believe in an idea are prepared to actually do something about it.”

Lethbridge’s company recently created Living Fast Day for Reuters, a company-wide event designed to engage employees with its new values and strategy and to get together to focus on what was needed to change the way the company worked. “Prior to Living Fast Day, staff across 94 countries were questioned on key issues affecting the company to ensure they had a voice and actually owned the content of discussions,” explains Lethbridge. “On the day, events were created that were locally owned and driven. Supported from the centre of the organisation to make sure they delivered the right messages, local Reuters teams developed a huge range of creative approaches to bring the company values to life, including debates, team challenges and social events.

“Within days of the event, there was a major reshuffle in the management team, within weeks the organisation was restructured and staff retention improved dramatically, and within months the share price had improved almost three-fold,” says Lethbridge.

Building a receptive culture
Of course, not all idea-generation strategies have to be led by large-scale live events. The key is creating a culture that is receptive to input from staff. “Employers have to treat the process of seeking staff suggestions as part of ‘business as usual’ if they are to establish a pipeline of ideas and improvements that can benefit the organisation,” stresses Paul Sweetman, associate director at communications consultancy Fishburn Hedges.

Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s is a case in point. At the end of 2004, it had endured a difficult trading period, and chief executive Justin King’s top priority was to get the business back on track. The role of staff was seen as vital in making the new service and quality strategy stick. Motivation agency Grass Roots created Shining Stars, a Web-based programme that rewards and recognises the kind of behaviour and action that have helped to revitalise the business. “This includes a mechanism to ‘Tell Justin’, which generates the best ideas from the frontline to the top of the organisation,” explains Grass Roots’ head of marketing Nick Wake. “The suggestion scheme has helped to give Sainsbury’s staff a sense of being listened to and the chance to play a major role in the retailer’s recovery programme.”

The internet also played a key part in direct marketing agency Dig For Fire’s Show and Tell initiative, through which all employees are invited to share their ideas, suggestions and the work they are particularly proud of. “We also encourage people to submit comments, thoughts and opinions to our monthly newsletter, The Dirt,” says the company’s senior account manager Lindsey Ramsay.

Full service agency Nexus/H’s Bright Ideas website serves a similar purpose. “Everyone in the company contributes to the internal site,” says director Cormach Moore. “There is a high volume of input with suggestions ranging from ways to make the office a better working environment, through to ways to develop the business. This scheme achieves a high response and the best ideas are showcased to the rest of the agency.”

Company-wide involvement
According to Graham Povey, managing director of Capital Incentives & Motivation, employees can help to review proposals. “It is important to ensure that the process of reviewing suggestions is fair and consistent. In some cases, it might be more appropriate for the panel of reviewers to be a cross-section of the workforce.

“It is also vital to follow through those ideas that have been chosen and ensure that everyone is informed once they have been implemented. Web programmes and e-mail updates work well because they are instant and can be accessed by most people.”

Companies can always approach external partners to help them implement an employee engagement and involvement programme. “The key to this is identifying someone who can develop a bespoke solution, appropriate to the company’s aims,” advises Sweetman. “This will create the participative culture that will ensure employee suggestions become part of dayto-day business.