Building a Digital Innovation System for Remote Working

Learning from the UK Rail Demonstrator about what to do (and what not to). The use of digital technologies as tools has risen in prominence to become a new reality for innovations who still want to make progress in their growth plans. While organisations grapple with new realities about what works, foundational principles of good design still apply. Fortunately, innovation leaders can take shortcuts to what works, or at least, what worst best, right now.

(20-minute read)

Through 2018 / 19 a project in innovating innovation was used on the UK rail system.

Ten key learnings were derived for you to consider in your planning for innovation in the coming year.

Innovation today has become more distributed and complex.

The distributed nature of industrial sectors and their ecosystems combined with the amount of information and multiple needs of users and customers is a significant challenge.

For innovation at the sector level, comprising many organizations and interest groups, to be successful in delivering multiple streams of products, services and solutions that are valued, there is a need to integrate perspectives from multiple stakeholders.

In other words, there is a need to ‘scale up’ innovation activities.  Scale-up in this context means a more frequent and greater volume of innovative products and solutions by engaging a wide community of interest.

To enable this, managers are considering the digitalization of existing innovation approaches.

How can this be done?

Digital tools fundamentally can provide far greater data handling capability and potentially enrich the quality and types of digital assets that can be used. Think about what can be written on a Post-it compared to attaching video, text, graphics, audio assets to the item in the digital roadmap.

This article presents a digitalized sector-level roadmapping-based front-end innovation process, providing key findings for managers in similar situations and corporate innovators in complex organisations.

Read the News Article about this project Here.

Organising to innovate collaboratively at a greater scale

Accelerating Innovation in Rail 4 (AIR4), was an initiative funded by the UK’s innovation agency, InnovateUK to demonstrate a first-of-kind digital and physical platform.

The scope was to create a customer-driven innovation infrastructure, with a focus on ‘Improving the Passenger Experience of Mainline UK Railway Stations’.

Strategic roadmapping is a prominent tool to link innovation supply and demand discussions.

The Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University has significant experience in the theory and practice of roadmapping.

Its “S-Plan fast start” is an agile workshop-based method that is frequently used to explore value, drivers and capabilities for strategic innovation.

The S-Plan process works because it is designed to take into account the “psychosocial” aspects associated with innovation activities – AKA how people work in strategizing. We can use these design principles to create a digital-based process that can be used by remote workers and at a significant scale; from large firms up to the sector level.

As a two-step approach, S-plan develops a broad landscape by sharing a range of perspectives followed by a deeper exploration of attractive opportunities using exploratory topic roadmap templates – preformatted ways to gather the right information in a time-efficient way.


1/10 – It’s useful to organise any innovation process around a grand challenge – sometimes referred to as challenge-led innovation. It provides permission, incentives and focuses the objective; new products services and solutions to solving relevant problems.

2/10 Digital innovation processes are not Set and Forget. After the process design, facilitation whether it be of physical workshops or remote-working sessions is needed to help get workshop delegates into the right mindset and significant quantities of creative information in the right state.

AIR4 developed a new approach, building on S-Plan; customizing the process to integrate a digital tool with innovation workspaces to facilitate supply chain involvement and deliver the desired customer-driven impact.

A multi-workshop front-end innovation process was designed and is summarized in Figure 1.

The purpose of organising in this way was to ensure multiple stakeholder perspectives were received, that real innovation was delivered and that sufficient learning was acquired to demonstrate that the front-end innovation process could be scaled up.

Innovation Process Design

Figure 1: Innovation Process Design.

Design for Digitalized Roadmapping

What game are we playing? Football, Rugby or competitive rock climbing?

Each comes with its own rules, customs and cultures. In the digital innovation field what tools will be used, by whom and for what purpose? What objectives will be set and how will good ideas be judged?

An organising innovation process is required to set the field of play, and allow the creativity to flow.

Facilitated workshops have shown their worth. Coupled to a digitalisation tool for visualisation and ideas development, these formed the basis of a working method to solve some grand challenge.

But innovation is essentially a people game; bringing the right people into the room, with solid rules of engagement provide the raw material for innovative solutions. By innovation we mean, new product, services or solutions that create value.

A digitalized roadmapping system was designed using a series of hierarchical levels, with increasing focus and detail. Four levels of roadmap were combined via three types of planning workshop to develop tangible outputs of product-service innovations, as shown in Figure 2.

Roadmapping Hierarchy

Figure 2: Schematic of the roadmapping hierarchical structure and roles for governance. Image adapted from IfM strategic roadmapping body of knowledge.

The workshop structure was designed as follows:

Workshop Level 0:

Delegates from across the UK Rail industry attended a one-day workshop to explore ‘improvement of the passenger experience’.

Selected for their wide-ranging perspectives about topics for improvement they worked on high-level themes to identify innovative ways to enhance value, quality and service for the passenger.

Following the S-Plan approach content was recorded in a commercially available visualization tool, SharpCloud.

Workshop Level 1, 2: 

A second one-day workshop was held with delegates from the rail supply chain to work up detail on high priority themes.

Delegates worked to develop the logic and content of the theme roadmaps, making use of the data already captured in predesigned templates uploaded to the SharpCloud environment.

Work was developed in real-time on the web and comments from delegates connecting remotely captured in real-time.

Workshop Level 2, 3:

The digital roadmaps developed were used to invite comment from the travelling public and the rail supply chain.

A pop-up innovation hub at London Bridge railway station was developed as a physical ‘go-to’ place for passengers and supply chain actors to interact with the theme roadmaps that were displayed on large smart screens.

The physical infrastructure of the innovation hub included large touch screens, and participants were able to engage with the digitized content using laptops and smartphones.

Theme focused one-day ideation and idea selection workshops were held in the innovation hub

Workshop participants were invited from the construction project collaborator’s supply chain and partner network.

3/10 – The psycho-social reality of innovation workshops is for many a people thing. Once the inter-personal relationship and clear rules are established, facilitation of delegates in dispersed locations is more easily handled.

Working at the product-solutions level (Level 3 in Figure 2) a landscaping-type process was used to populate a new ideas landscape in SharpCloud. Key ideas were selected using opportunity and feasibility criteria which had been determined by the project leadership in advance of the workshop.

Online real-time voting tools can be adapted. Commercially available solutions such as Mentimeter or Cloud documents in MS365 or GoogleDocs can be adapted. What is used, depends on the results required. Mass voting is easy to do, but what if the granular selection is required around tightly defined Opportunity / Feasibility criteria? Consider this in the process design stage.

Online real-time voting tools can be adapted. Commercially available solutions such as Mentimeter or Cloud documents in MS365 or GoogleDocs can be adapted. What is used, depends on the results required. Mass voting is easy to do, but what if the granular selection is required around tightly defined Opportunity / Feasibility criteria? Consider this in the process design stage.

These ideas were then worked up in more detail during the afternoon of the workshop, including the preparation of preliminary business cases.

After the workshops, a presentation event was held where theme leaders presented detailed ideas to a decision-making group with project members and supply chain partners.

Over the theme workshops around forty ideas were developed, and fifteen were considered to have high potential with breakthrough impact. Of these, a number were selected for investment by the supply chain partners.

System of systems: a hierarchical approach

This innovation process needed to take a ‘system-of-systems’ approach to manage the complexity in manageable ways. The systems employed within this project included:

·        Processes, activities and software tools

·        Roadmapping architectures and artefacts

·        Physical infrastructure and hardware

·        Roles and responsibilities.

By employing a systems-of-systems approach with multiple levels, different stakeholder needs can be addressed.

At the highest level (Level 0), concepts about the meaning and needs of improving the passenger experience were explored.

In the next levels down,  (Levels 1 and 2), common themes on issues and potential solution spaces are identified and detailed.

At the lowest level (Level 3) specific product and service innovations are described.

4/10 – A number of roles need to be installed to run an innovation infrastructure: To design the process, run the workshops, providing leadership and motivation as well as supporting IT, and stimulating creativity and decision-making about innovative ideas emerging from the process.

5/10 – Digital tools for strategy and innovation can play a role in facilitating innovation practices through collaboration at greater scale with customers and the innovation ecosystem. The information-handling capability of digital tools is a potential game-changer providing rapid and more potentially revealing narratives helping us see the woods for the trees.

The importance of process

Careful design of an innovation process was essential to organize the consortium objectives and participation for constructors, manufacturers and service companies from the rail ecosystem.

A hierarchical approach was taken, to ensure that overarching objectives were broken down into aims for the different workshops.

Each workshop subprocess was designed with specific activities to achieve the workshop aims within the constraints of the personnel participating, the tools being used, and the timeframes allowed.

Where necessary, post-workshop processing activities were also employed to refine the data gathered so that it was of adequate quality to act as input for the following workshop.

Facilitation was found to be key to achieving the objectives, clarifying the process and expectations, and helping participants into the right mindset.

Key roles are workshop facilitator and the innovation process manager.

6/10 – Careful design of the innovation process (such as IfM’s S-Plan reference process) is required to deliver high-quality outputs. One still needs to get the “Right People in the Room” real or virtual. But be careful to avoid Garbage Out by using good process design.

7/10- Digital innovation processes are not Set and Forget. After the process design, facilitation whether it be of physical workshops or remote-working sessions is needed to help get workshop delegates into the right mindset.

Insights from the process

As well as adjusting the process and activities to meet the aims, the right innovation tools need to be employed; digital and non-digital.

In terms of digital support, these tools may be hardware or software. Scaling up digitally-enabled innovation requires a wider suite of suitable tools to encompass the needs of participants and the practicalities of achieving the objectives.

We can draw from researchers both from the theory and practice of roadmapping in a face to face workshop and those looking into digital tools.

8/10 – Shifting personal behaviours; preference by some for paper and pens is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Establishing ways of working for digital workshop delegates will take some time. Open mindsets are essential basic behaviours of an innovation process participant. Consider breaking the process into bite-sized time chuck: it can be very tiring to be screen-bound for significant lengths of time.

  • Make sure participants are helped to become familiar with the digital tools – hardware and software – when designing the process activities to be undertaken. You might need to consider introductory activities to help participants feel comfortable.
  • Use multiple types of electronic devices when groups were undertaking sensemaking activities.
  • Groups who use a shared digital screen show greater equality of participation than groups who only use personal tablets.

9/10 – Involving customer (passengers) offers the possibility of more engagement in problem-based ideas generation but the quality and depth of innovative ideas may be sacrificed. Potential greater innovation agency is the prize.

10/10 – GO-TO places for innovation, such as hubs in key locations, provides permission and expectation for innovation to occur there. The physical and digital infrastructure needs to be conducive to allow creative thinking and conversations to occur and functional to become as nag-free as possible. Hubs can be a low-cost way of tapping into a larger crowd, with greater / different wisdom.

People Implications

Designing an innovation process is very much not about placing an IT wrapper around your typical activities. The process must be designed carefully with online and offline steps in mind and a selection of tools to achieve the desired outcome.

The activities in workshops needed to work with the tool being employed, whether these were traditional or digital, and so care needs to be taken to design these activities appropriately.

Within the divergent and convergent procedures, participants need time to absorb and process information individually as well as time for undertaking convergent activities within a group.

Participants unfamiliar with digital tools may revert to traditional methods or some blend of the two. One participant noted that some other participants behaved “as if the digital tool would bite them” and another that “many engineers like to think by drawing with pen and paper. Going direct to digital might be an obstacle without drawing tablets”.

Workshop processes can be intense and mentally taxing. Including lots of screen time is tiring, so the specific activities being used need to be adjusted to maintain focus and momentum, rather than just replicating traditional activities digitally.

Consider how to maintain participation in-between stages to engage participants in inter-workshop activities to refine data gathered in workshops.

Conclusions for Innovation Managers

The use of digital support in a carefully designed innovation process, with appropriate tools and roles, provides a way for innovation managers to handle remote working for innovation planning.

It also provides a means to enhance engagement across a broad ecosystem or large company bringing customers and the supply chain into the process.

This project demonstrated the potential of a digital-physical innovation infrastructure for scaling up to solve complex cross-sector challenges.

However, careful design of the innovation process is required to get the most out of the people involved in the process to generate high-impact results. And a wider suite of digital tools is required to provide a full spectrum of innovation process features.

As digital technology continues to evolve, continual experimentation is required to understand how this can be used effectively to support innovation processes, blending human and digital.

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Want to know more?

Rob Munro delivers strategic innovation services to companies, universities and government agencies giving business and innovation leaders the practices, tools and confidence to achieve best in class innovation results.

If you want better innovation results for your organisation, please connect with me and reach out via direct message.

Read more about my approach to innovation planning in improving innovation results.


The support from Innovate UK and the participation of the stakeholders during AIR4 are gratefully acknowledged. Project Partners, Costain, IBM, IfM ECS, Milne Research. Rob designed and led the roadmapping related aspects through his association with IfM Engage, the knowledge transfer business of the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University.


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