When the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) wanted to help Syrian war victims and the other 10.5 million refugees and 42.5 million forcibly displaced people the agency serves get better access to their services, they did what many large bureaucracies do: Hire an outside vendor. But in the UNHCR's case, they hired an outside vendor with a twist. They crowdsourced.
Using a system from analytics and innovation management firm Spigit, the agency launched a crowdsourcing initiative called UNHCR Ideas which solicited ideas from employees, partners, and academic partners around the world about how to improve access to the agency's services. Instead of doing a top-down review of how services functioned in the field, UN leadership decided to reverse the process and crowdsource improvements in their access and logistics protocols. Through the Spigit software package, researchers at the UN were able to identify broad trends and common complaint issues that the agency could remedy.
In an interview with Fast Company, Spigit CMO Shail Khiyara noted that one of the biggest benefits of his company's products is how it streamlines things for large organizations. "Innovation is the industrial revolution of the 21st century, and it's the lifeblood of many organizations. Organizations don't usually have a way of soliciting innovation from employees, vendors, and contractors at the same time. We give them a structure," Khiyara said. Spigit's software (and those of competitors like Brightidea) serve as a sifting mechanism for innovation management at large organizations—the idea is to use technology to create a clear path for performance enhancing- or money-saving institutional improvements.
Since UNHCR Ideas began on August 13, over 300 people have participated in brainstorming, primarily on improving access to information and services for refugees in urban areas. The bulk of UNHCR's participants gave advice on services in Ethiopia, Kenya, and India. Part of the process for the refugee agency involves Google Hangouts with stakeholders worldwide, where they share insights and suggestions. An archive of one of the Hangouts is shown below:
Spigit's stock in trade is offering mobile- and desktop-based innovation crowdsourcing products for large bureaucracies like Fortune 1000 corporations and government agencies. By using big data analytics and decentralized crowdsourcing, the idea goes, organizations can find and repair weak spots more quickly than by bringing in high-priced consultants. There's also the idea the organizational stakeholders—employees and partners—feel more involved in improving things when they're the ones giving the suggestions. For the UN Refugee Agency, which has a legendarily slow-moving bureaucracy, turning to crowdsourcing was a necessary step to improve functionality.
A similar process took place at another large organization, UnitedHealthcare. The health insurance giant turned to Spigit's platform to streamline internal processes—primarily those dealing with appeals of insurance decisions. Because their organization is so large and spread out, turning to a formal innovation platform gave the company a manageable way of sorting employee suggestions and implementing them.
At United, the innovation management platform was used to identify improvements without turning to outside consultants. "We push it out to employees to gather ideas, and alongside ideas we focus on fostering collaboration among employees—it's an issue of crowdsourcing, filtering and identifying solutions for us. Filling that need with a solution like Spigit helps employees feel like they are contributing to improvement," said United's Brandon Rowberry in an interview. Greg Hicks, the company's director of innovation, added that Spigit was rolled out to all employees worldwide—even development team members in India and Brazilian health insurer affiliate Amil.
But in the end, the major issue to think about is how Spigit occupies a market niche that shouldn't even exist. For a large institution—whether it's the United Nations' refugee agency or a large health insurer—to have to bring in an outside company to create an institutional pipeline for innovation means there's a structural flaw in that company or agency which needs to be fixed. Simply put, innovation shouldn't require software platforms.
[Image: Wikimedia user Nicolas Rougier]
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the number of people served by UNHCR; it is 10.5, not 10.4 million under the mandate of UNHCR along with a larger population of forcibly displaced.