Imaginatik’s Technology Helps Companies Keep Their Crowdsourcing Initiatives Inside the Box

Evidently, a lot of companies have trouble innovating—or there wouldn’t be so many startups offering “enterprise crowdsourcing” and “innovation management” tools to help them.

Several of these startups are right here in New England and have been featured in Xconomy. For example, there’s Innocentive, which helps companies stage international competitions to solve discrete problems like “find a novel protease inhibitor”; TopCoder, which is similar to Innocentive, but specializes in crowdsourcing big software development projects; uTest, which crowdsources software quality-assurance testing; Invention Machine, which makes software that helps engineers brainstorm; and Induct Software, which was founded in Norway but has a Boston-based CEO, and is building a customizable, Web-based system that allows companies to codify a process for innovation.

But older than all of these companies except Invention Machine, and far more obsessed with the “management” side of innovation management, is a Boston-based firm called Imaginatik (AIM: IMTK). Founder and CEO Mark Turrell, whom I reached last week at his home in Berlin, says Imaginatik (pronounced imagin-ATT-ic) stands out within the innovation industry for its pragmatism about how organizations really work—and about the importance, in the rush toward “transparency,” of making sure that certain information and intellectual property stays inside the right boxes.

“There are a lot of pragmatic reasons why transparency doesn’t work and is actually bad,” Turrell says. “Do you want your sales team knowing six months in advance that your product development cycle has actually been pushed back? For a lot of companies, even the idea that you could share your problems [internally] and have 500 strangers across your organization give you responses is really scary.”

That’s why many of the features of Idea Central, Imaginatik’s Web-based idea collection platform, are focused around organizing and controlling the process of internal crowdsourcing. After 15 years studying group collaboration and developing software to facilitate it—and after selling Idea Central to companies like Bombardier, Boeing, Cargill, Chubb, Novartis, Pfizer, and Whirlpool that together have almost a million end users—Turrell says Imaginatik has learned that coming up with ideas is relatively easy. But managing and implementing them, within the context of an established corporate culture, is exceedingly complex.

“We built the first prototype of our software suite in a couple of hours, back in 1998,” Turrell says. “But very quickly the testers said, ‘What if I don’t want to share this idea with you? What if I don’t want to be named? What if we’re innovating around a supply chain system for a company like Whirlpool—should Supplier A ever see Supplier B’s ideas?’ All of a sudden, just in terms of security and change management and behavior, this became something that very much depended on a good understanding of business processes.”

Turrell says Imaginatik spent about six years testing different iterations of its software within real organizations, “just really fundamentally understanding how this stuff works in practice, and not only in one organization, but how it can be replicated, whether you’re an insurance company or a pharmaceuticals company, whether you’re in Shanghai or Poughkeepsie.”

The company finally “nailed the formula” around 2004, he says, but it took a couple more years to line up the capital needed to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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