Big Green Innovations

Published Feb-23-10

The creation of a new IBM business unit to tackle environmental problems and find new sources of revenue.


The Story:

Big Green Innovations IBM has open innovation in its blood. Since 2001 the multinational has been holding innovation jams, where thousands of employees brainstorm ideas over a period of a few days. The first jam was an experiment that proved to the company the power of its Intranet to serve as a single collaborative space for the company. It was a way of making use of the collective smarts of 350,000 people and using this as an asset to improve the way the organization operates.

IBM uses open innovation jams extensively and in 2006 it embarked on its largest ever online brainstorming session to speed up the launch of new technologies and develop novel ways of bringing them to market. Prompted by IBM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Samuel J. Palmisano this was the first jam where IBM involved individuals and research organizations who were not part of the company.

Palmisano had been at a meeting at one of IBM's research labs and was fired up by discussions of emerging technologies. He thought there had to be faster ways of getting them to the market.

Big Money Investment to Open Innovation

Such was Palmisano’s commitment to the jams that he announced that up to $100 million would be invested in a number of the best ideas. “He put that on the table right from the beginning to show people he was very serious about the jam as a way to identify some potential new businesses and new business models,” said Liam Cleaver, Program Director for IBM Innovation Jams.

The “Innovation Jam” took place in two three-day phases and more than 150,000 IBM employees, family members, business partners, clients and university researchers took part. They came from 104 countries, and the online conversations continued 24 hours a day which yielded a staggering 46,000 plus ideas.

Out of this jam 10 ideas were identified for further funding and these included: -
Big Green Innovations - an entirely new business unit in IBM to focus on applying the company’s expertise and technologies to emerging environmental opportunities, such as advanced water modeling, and efficient solar power systems.

Integrated Mass Transit Information System – looking at ways to establish on demand systems for integrating, managing and disseminating real-time data for all of a municipality’s or region’s transit systems.

3D Internet - to build the next platform for global commerce and business operations.

Five of the ten ideas now make up IBM’s 'Smarter Planet’ which is a corporate wide initiative to make the world ‘smarter’. It aims to solve some of the planet’s biggest problems by improving such areas as healthcare and energy consumption, and generally making the world’s systems more intelligent.

Capitalizing on Ideas

To make the most of the excitement, interest and motivation of jammers companies need to be prepared to act on the volume of good ideas generated. The success of the first jam caught IBM by surprise and they weren’t prepared for the large body of interest. Over time they have developed methodologies to effectively facilitate large groups to capture the ideas and refine them further.

One way they are helped in this is with the use of a data mining tool called COBRA. Developed by IBM researchers it helps the company to understand in real time the conversations jammers are having, and it spots emerging themes. These are then represented by a theme cloud within the jam. COBRA is also an aid to the conversations that continue afterwards as the jams are not carried out in isolation but in tandem with larger programs.

“We’ve really learnt over the years the different techniques on how you effectively engage a conversation with a large group of people and keep them focused on topic, on content,” adds Cleaver. “A tremendous amount of thought goes into the quality of the question, defining the intent. Why and what are you hoping to get out of this audience.”

Open Innovation Transforms

The open innovation jams have helped to transform the fortunes of IBM. They are so integral to the company’s research capabilities that Chairman and CEO Samuel J. Palmisano now refers to them as being a part of the management system.

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