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Ideas on the march

Ideas on the march

A creative approach to staff suggestions is paying innovation dividends for a leading property group.

Kim Dawson is Jones Lang LaSalle's high priestess of ideas. She has been with the commercial property agency for six years, most of those as a property and asset manager. But in April last year she was approached by the group's Australian chief executive, Christine Bartlett, to take up the position of innovation director. Bartlett wanted an internally focused business unit to capture then promote and nurture ideas within the company. Dawson and an assistant are it. "As an organisation, we knew that to grow and remain competitive, innovation was key," she says. "We were also very aware that it is not only senior management that have good ideas but often the key ideas come from those working in the field, those in touch with our clients and using our technology on a daily basis."

Dawson runs internal workshops on creative thinking, but her primary responsibility is to draw out innovation in the company and help develop it. This is done with intranet software that JLL dubs "the innovation zone", but which staff have abbreviated to just "the zone".

"The program has provided a central hub [an online collaboration tool] where people, no matter what business line they operate in or where they are located, are able to submit ideas that are captured, reviewed and actioned within a given time frame by the firm," Dawson says.

JLL's innovation process ignores boundaries of business division and geography. Each state division has an innovation champion to promote innovative ideas and practice on a local basis. A national innovation review team monitors ideas that come via the online tool.

Since the program was launched in July 2006, 37 per cent of ideas put forward through the zone have been referred to existing business lines. A total of 5 per cent moved further up the chain, and 35 per cent "closed out" - that is, either the ideas were already in use or they were rejected as inappropriate. The remaining submissions are awaiting review or additional information from the staff member who put forward the idea.

Two ideas generated by JLL's innovation process have already been implemented and have become new business units - an insurance joint venture and a specialist equipment and machinery valuation practice. Another two new business ventures that emerged from the process and are on the way have the potential to produce revenue of more than $8 million over five years.

"The quality [of ideas] is much better than we'd anticipated when we launched," Dawson says. "We were expecting to get a lot more general suggestions than good ideas." Although she does admit: "Quite often, the ideas that are put into the zone are already active somewhere else."

Dawson says JLL keeps the definition of "innovation" fluid. This means that ideas generated by the process "may not be a new business unit. It may be something that we tack on to something else. In a lot of ways, it's a change-management program."

But the innovation program is also a human resources tool by proxy. The program ensures the ideas of up-and-comers are recognised and gives them ownership, although graduates are not thrown into the deep end to manage the process or lead a team.

"This is certainly about improving staff retention and giving people an opportunity to be heard," Dawson says. "If it's your idea, you will be given the opportunity to stay with it. It provides good career opportunities for people."

Dawson says the innovation process has also produced a number of other advantages.

"We still [have] quite a silo-operated mentality ... [The process] has opened up our lines of communication. [Managers] need to be aware not just of their own business line but of all the business."

However, Dawson had to overcome scepticism - including her own initial reservations - to get the program running. "I thought this was a really good initiative for the firm," she says, but adds: "I must admit I was [thinking] 'Me? I'm not innovative'."

"To some degree, there is some resistance - often because we may have tried things in the past," Dawson says. She is determined, however, that that type of thinking won't be a barrier. "It may be [that those ideas] might work now. Most people are so passionate about their ideas they will find a way around the hurdle."

Two things helping to ensure the innovation program's success are the backing of JLL's senior management and generous funding. JLL had committed about $630,000 in July last year to kick start the program. Cost savings and new revenue are expected to see it break even by the end of this year. The success of JLL's innovation program means that it potentially has legs beyond the company's Australian operations. "Australia was the guinea-pig market," Dawson says. The program is likely to be rolled out to the group's Asian offices next year, possibly by Dawson herself.

At any point an idea may be:

• Open to comment and rating by staff through the online collaboration tool.

• Referred to a project team or existing business unit.

• Closed out'.

• Returned to the originator for more information.

Sidebar:

The innovation process

1. The pitch: An idea is submitted to the online collaboration tool.

2 Initial review: All staff may comment on ideas submitted online, but an innovation review team makes a quick decision as to whether an idea is:

(a) Already in use.

(b) Promoted to the next level.

(c) Passed to an existing business unit for immediate use.

(d) Closed.

3. Initial value proposition: The idea is recognised as having potential value, so it is 'fleshed-out' as a concept and further detail is provided on the benefits.

4. Full value proposition: The concept is written up formally, costs and revenues are estimated, and a business case is built. The idea is submitted to a board at national, regional or global level for evaluation, leading to implementation.

BRW

© Fairfax Business Media

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