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How Their Garden Grows

The corporate suggestion box isn't what it used to be, and for one company, that has proved to be a very good thing. Also: why finance wants IT systems to get along; corporate security suffers from divide-and-fail syndrome; more.

Much of IT is designed to get data to employees, but very little attempts to do the reverse: get information from them, particularly of the fresh-thinking and problem-solving sort that can enhance revenue. True, an entire discipline known as knowledge management has explored techniques for tapping collective corporate brainpower, but for the most part, companies squander a good portion of the intellectual capital that resides within their walls.

Two years ago, Grace Performance Chemicals decided to do something about it. “We knew we had an effective process for developing new products,” says vice president of finance-operations Susan Farnsworth. “But we weren’t getting enough good ideas into the front end of the system.”

Grace turned to a small software company, Boston-based Imaginatik, which had developed an idea-management application it called Idea Central. Part database, part workflow system, the software is not, Imaginatik CEO Mark Turrell emphasizes, an electronic suggestion box. For one thing, a truly good idea often results from collaboration around several less-good ideas, while suggestion boxes have a take-it-or-leave-it quality that effectively thwarts a group contribution. Then there are what Turrell terms “people-sensitive” issues: do you make the suggestion process anonymous and risk not being able to tap additional insights from an employee? Do you identify which idea came from whom and risk revealing a senior person as clueless?

Idea Central uses E-mail alerts to solicit ideas from a defined group of people; sometimes, as in a general call for cost-cutting ideas, that group may include every employee. In other cases, such as refining a given and possibly complex process, it may be more useful to invite only specialists to provide their two cents. The software acts as a repository for initial input and a forum for invitees to refine one another’s ideas, in the search for that elusive brainstorm that boosts the bottom line.

Grace dubbed its implementation of the software Idea Garden, and it has harvested quite a crop: everything from simple expense cuts (an employee’s observation that the company subscribed to too many magazines saved it $200,000) to what director of innovation Paul Westgate calls a “customers do the darndest things” campaign in which the sales force was asked to discuss customers’ novel uses of Grace products, helping the company spot new ways to market its goods.

Farnsworth says that new products generated in the Idea Garden have the potential to achieve sales of $6 million. Not bad for software that costs $65,000 to $100,000 for 1,000 users. “Employees get pumped up when they have a voice,” says Farnsworth. So too, apparently, do profits.

Make IT Connect

While CFOs continue to get more involved in IT management, they are also customers of the IT department, and like customers everywhere they have certain expectations and preferences.

When Forrester Research polled more than 200 finance executives about what they want their IT departments to do for them, the most common answer had nothing to do with Sarbanes-Oxley or compliance issues. Instead, three of the top four priorities were related to better integration and consolidation of existing systems. When the executives were asked to cite their biggest challenge with corporate IT, the most common answer was “different systems produce inconsistent results.”

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