The Envelope, Please: From Eight Great Innovative Tools, Which Ones Are the Winners?

Ramping up customer satisfaction, maximizing the effectiveness of human capital and repairing supply chains were just a few of the ambitious aims of the ground-breaking "tools" entered in the inaugural Wipro/Knowledge@Wharton Innovation Tournament, whose final round of judging took place on March 23 in Philadelphia.

One innovation promised to reduce unfulfilled customer orders, while another sought to monitor customers' satisfaction with a product or service. Four other innovators focused on improving how people do their jobs by sharing knowledge or monitoring performance. Another found ways to connect companies with new suppliers, while another devised a bridge between humans and machines.

These tools and their creators contended for three winning slots in a contest inspired by the recently published book, Innovation Tournaments: Creating and Selecting Exceptional Opportunities, by Wharton professors of operations and information management Karl Ulrich and Christian Terwiesch. In their book, the authors encourage companies to look at attempts to find the "next big thing" as a necessity — rather than a luxury, which many often do. To vet and manage new ideas that employees come up with, Ulrich and Terwiesch recommend that companies hold "innovation tournaments" so that proposals compete against each other in various rounds of judging, until the strongest and most promising are identified and declared the winners. It is a way for organizations to sift through lots of good ideas and come up with a few outstanding ones.

Knowledge@Wharton's Innovation Tournament, sponsored by Wipro Technologies, the Bangalore-based IT services firm, had a similar objective. It was to invite individuals and teams around the world to come up with innovative tools that companies could use during the economic downturn to increase revenues, reduce costs, or increase engagement with their customers. To qualify, tools — which were defined as a method, approach, template, process or software — had to be easily available via the web and could not be proprietary. Four judges helped guide the process along: Ulrich and Terwiesch; Sanjay Gupta, senior vice president of productized solutions at Wipro Technologies; Mukul Pandya, executive director and editor-in-chief of Knowledge@Wharton.

The tournament attracted 120 participants from around the world, and Knowledge@Wharton narrowed that initial list to the top 25. These semi-finalists were invited to present their concepts during a webinar, and the group was then shortlisted to 10. Eight of the innovators traveled to Philadelphia to make their presentations at the finals in March. From these, three winners were selected — with the first-place innovator receiving a cash award of US$10,000, and the second- and third-place innovators receiving US$5,000 each. The three winning innovators are listed at the end of this article. (You can also watch interviews with the three winners and download PowerPoint presentations about their tools here.) But first, profiles of the eight finalists follow:

Business Physics: As a physics teacher in Lunenburg, Mass., John Rabbitt often likes to refer to the formula, "Work equals force times distance." In fact, that was the inspiration for his innovation, Business Physics.

As he explains, Rabbitt sees a lot of similarities between physics, which "is all about movement of energy and the ability to create work," and the change management initiatives that companies implement — and very often struggle to complete. He says it's not uncommon for corporate change management teams to waste energy because they don't anticipate the resistance they will encounter.

With that in mind, Rabbitt used his knowledge of physics to develop a process to help companies identify "resistance" in their workflow and create a methodology to deal with it. The process guides a company's energies toward reaching its goals and making those achievements sustainable.

Rabbitt says he has tested his process successfully in a unit of Siemens, which now wants to roll it out in other parts of the German electronics and engineering multinational.

According to the physics teacher, that indicates a success rate that is far higher than what the majority of companies accomplish with conventional change improvement methods. Rabbitt reckons a US$10 billion market awaits his innovation.

Full Access Innovation Method: Times are changing, and companies are not prepared to manage the "huge generational shift" between Facebook kids and baby boomers and everyone else in between, according to Nadia Laurincikova and Thomas Rudy of New York.

Against this backdrop, Laurincikova and Rudy developed Full Access Innovation Method, a seven-step process to help managers enrich their companies' human capital by tuning in to the innovative ideas of younger employees. They say younger employees are brimming with ideas, but generally hold back sharing their thoughts on new businesses or strategies because they feel too shy or intimidated to speak up in front of older and more experienced colleagues.

The aim is to encourage senior management to use the seven steps to help rank ideas that all staff put on the table and then commit to implementing the ideas that are shortlisted. The upshot is "a safe environment for young talent to brainstorm and innovate," says Laurincikova.

Provided that the method receives strong senior management support, adds Rudy, the process allows companies not only to identify innovators in their ranks, but also to retain and motivate employees.

In the end, the entire organization benefits, they say. "We really perform best in an environment that is horizontal, very collaborative, which gives us room to be creative," Laurincikova notes.

Manufacture Blogging: Imagine a network that documents what all the hundreds of millions of machines that affect our lives do, from the labor and products they use to the by-products and waste they generate.

Jayaram Srinivasan and Nageshwara Manda of Bangalore have designed such a network, using blogs from around the world written by companies and consumers alike about the machines they use, any problems they see and how they can be fixed. "It's like a global data hub," says Srinivasan.

The inventors visualize limitless possibilities for their creation: Doctors could monitor the performance of medical equipment in an intensive care unit; shippers could track consignments; people on vacation could check in on their home security systems; and shoppers could get information about how a product is made and what each step of the manufacturing process costs.

The blogs — which would be protected by access rights and disclosure rules — could also trigger alerts about pollution generated by machines in a particular plant and establish industry-wide benchmarks for operating such machines, says Srinivasan. What's more, because the network would aim to monitor entire supply chains, it could share critical information about, for example, child labor, sustainable farming techniques and carbon emissions.

Mobile Pocket Diary: When a number of raw material suppliers went belly up during the recent economic downturn, it took a long time for many of their customers to find alternative companies from whom they could source supplies. Moreover, some of these customers found themselves with access to only one supplier, leaving them little room to negotiate fair prices and payment terms. To avoid running into such a situation again, Mumbai-based student Darshana Dave developed the Mobile Pocket Diary.

Dave's mobile product displays information about raw materials or components and enables procurement managers to keep tabs on new suppliers they can turn to should the need arise. Managers at, say, a trade fair can use the information on their Mobile Pocket Diary to check a potential supplier's ability to fulfill orders, match prices and meet technology standards, she says.

Dave says in trials at a pharmaceuticals company, Mobile Pocket Diary helped cut the time to identify, verify, shortlist and enlist new vendors from 38 days to 17 days. It can be used with standard enterprise resource planning or supply chain management software, and each unit can be produced at a cost of US$2,000, she adds.

OrgStrat: Sidharth Bhatia of Quebec has an innovation that promises to facilitate real-time corporate knowledge management using social networking. OrgStrat combines "asynchronous" tools, like micro-blogging and email, with "synchronous" tools, such as chat rooms and video conferencing, to enable employees to post comments and brainstorm together online. Eventually, OrgStrat could translate entries into different languages so that, regardless of where they are based and which languages they speak, a company's employees can trade their knowledge.

Bhatia says the increased internal collaboration that OrgStrat enables could also improve collaboration with external stakeholders — particularly customers — and drive shareholder value. It requires minimal tech support, such as Microsoft Office or enterprise resource planning software. According to Bhatia, without the "heavy software used at new-age firms," OrgStrat is cost-effective for a traditional firm, which might have a tight IT budget but "still wants to adapt and do something futuristic."

However, he concedes, employees might not jump at the chance to share the knowledge they might otherwise hoard. The solution is to get "top-down management buy-in," he says. OrgStrat is still at a conceptual stage, and Bhatia wants to test it with a focus group at a traditional, bricks-and-mortar retailer or manufacturer.

Pain Points Mapping Software Module: Consumers often run into problems — or "pain points" — when they use products or services, but companies selling those products or services aren't always able to efficiently identify what the points are. Ramya Narayanaswamy and Kaustubh Dhargalkar of the Welingkar Institute of Management in Mumbai say their Pain Points Mapping Software Module could bridge the gap.

With their module, consumers can log entries around the clock, 365 days a year on a website about what their "pain points" are. The site is organized by sectors and sub-sectors, such as retail banking or mobile phone services. A site administrator filters all the pain points, which are then tagged and mapped to identify trends in customer dissatisfaction. Only the consumer and site administrator have access to this information and eliminates the bias inherent in conventional, time-consuming methods used to gauge customer satisfaction, such as surveys or focus groups, says Dhargalkar.

The software's inventors tested the module for more than two years with a group of 500 students. They collected 54,561 pain points and tagged 229 unique ones.

Some pain points are already being addressed as a result of the module, says Dhargalkar. For example, a student has invented a software patch for mobile phones that magnifies fonts for senior citizens. Another has thought up an insurance product to cover unborn children, which some insurers are considering.

The way Dhargalkar sees it: "Today's discomforts are tomorrow's opportunities."

PERC: This management tool is aimed at not only a company's low- and mid-tier performers, but also its high flyers, say Tristan Yates and Jim Boswell of Culver, Indiana. PERC uses scorecards designed around "predictive, consistent and verifiable" factors to rank the full range of individual employee performance, helping the entire organization assess how well staff members are doing their jobs. Beyond that, PERC — which stands for Performance Evaluation Report Card — provides early warning signals to managers about under-performance so that problems can be addressed sooner rather than later, they add.

"The poorest performers improve quickly because they are under the most pressure and because they have the greatest opportunity to improve," says Yates. "But we also saw improvement across the board. That's the power of the ranking."

Boswell developed PERC during the financial crisis of the early 1990s. At the time, he was a director at PricewaterhouseCoopers managing a team of risk analysts for Ginnie Mae's mortgage-backed securities. Yates, who was an analyst in Boswell's team, claims PERC can take some credit for helping Ginnie Mae weather the downturn, while other mortgage-backed securities companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac didn't.

But whatever the economic cycle, "PERC and its timely feedback focus managers on outcomes, not processes," he says.

Stock-out Predictor: If a product isn't available when a customer wants it, a company loses sales — but that's not all. The overall brand's reputation is also damaged, as is the company's relationship with its customers. Manufacturers are well aware of this and attempt to deal with "stock-outs" with proactive inventory planning. But their attempts aren't always efficient or well-timed and often miss external factors adversely affecting a supply chain.

To address all this, Rajesh Kumar, Sandeep Jain and Chinmay Mesaria of Hewlett-Packard in Bangalore developed an analytics-based algorithm, which maps out the route goods take — from when an order is placed to delivery to customers — while identifying bottlenecks and recommending ways to rectify them. "This tool helps you predict stock-outs after all the inventory planning has been done, while you are in an execution mode," Jain says.

Stock-out Predictor runs on any standard software, such as MS Office, and allows "end-to-end visibility across the supply chain," he says. Easy to use, it is also a "self-learning tool," which adjusts parameters as goods move through a supply chain, he notes.

Jain and Kumar tested the tool in HP's PC business, which experienced stock-outs of 5% in European markets, costing the company US$21 million in lost revenues every year. They honed in on the root causes of unfulfilled customer orders and slashed the stock-outs from 5% to 2%, says Jain. The result: HP's PC sales grew by $12 million, according to the inventors. The stock-out levels could be reduced still further once problems, such as faulty forecasts by distributors and retailers, are addressed, Jain adds.

Now, the drum roll.

The judges of the Wipro/Knowledge@Wharton Innovation Tournament selected Darshana Dave's Mobile Pocket Diary as the second runner up and Ramya Narayanaswamy and Kaustubh Dhargalkar's Pain Points Mapping Software Module as the first runner up. The winners of the first prize were Rajesh Kumar, Sandeep Jain and Chinmay Mesaria for their Stock-out Predictor.

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