4 studies in collaboration — Case 2: TSA’s IdeaFactory

Frontline employees give unfettered suggestions to the headquarters office

When the Transportation Security Administration decided to build a facility for employee forums, it didn’t search for a construction site or lease office space. Instead, it turned to online collaboration tools for its workforce dispersed at airports nationwide.

In April 2007, TSA launched the IdeaFactory, an online facility where employees can post their suggestions for improving how the agency operates.

TSA officials hoped IdeaFactory would help employees feel connected to one another and also improve communication at the agency.

TSA “went out and did Webcasts, town halls, etc.…and that was fine,” said Kip Hawley, TSA’s administrator, who devised the IdeaFactory concept. However, he added, “I honestly didn’t feel like it moved the needle that much. Every workforce is used to hearing the story from headquarters.”
TSA officials describe IdeaFactory as a way to involve employees in policy conversations. Employees can log in to the agency’s intranet and post suggestions for improvements or comment on others’
suggestions.

There are 4,500 suggestions on IdeaFactory, and employees have added more than 58,000 posts to vote for specific suggestions. The number of general comments posted now exceeds 39,000.  
The agency’s innovation council reviews the 30 or so best ideas of the week. The council members, who include representatives from various TSA organizations, discuss which ideas the agency should
implement.

Suggestions an organization wants to adopt move up the management chain for approval.
Peter Clunie, IdeaFactory’s deputy program manager, said TSA leaders like the transparency and openness of IdeaFactory compared with a traditional suggestion box in which one person reads the suggestions and passes some of them up the ladder.

TSA has taken about 20 ideas from IdeaFactory and implemented them nationally.

Employees receive no monetary awards for successful ideas, but the agency recognizes them with a certificate and memento from TSA. Sometimes, the agency brings them to Washington to help with the
implementation.

IdeaFactory is based on a similar project that Dell created to encourage its employees to communicate with one another. 

“There was always the chance to go up and down, but there was no lateral opportunity at TSA for communication in Providence, R.I., to Fresno, Calif.,” Hawley said. “If you were working in those locations, you’d have no recognition the other existed.”
David Wyld, a professor of management at Southeastern Louisiana University who also does research and writes reports for the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said IdeaFactory can help TSA solve that communication problem.

“If I’m a TSA screener in Amarillo, Texas, I’m very excited about this because it lets me be part of the conversation,” Wyld said.

Because it is difficult to quantify the results of online collaboration programs such as IdeaFactory, often the best way to measure return on investment is to observe cultural changes, such as employees saying that they feel that they are being heard, Wyld said.

TSA officials have found that by using editors and not allowing anonymous postings, IdeaFactory is self-policing.

“We found that the lighter the touch on editing, the better the quality of ideas and the better the quality of discussion,” Hawley said.

Clunie said most of the postings are cordial. Employees occasionally violate the terms of use and have been suspended from the forum. However, TSA has not responded by taking action that would affect anyone’s employment status at the agency.

John  Kamensky, senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said TSA’s IdeaFactory is an example of a larger cultural shift in organizations. “When employ es begin talking to each other rather than through the hierarchy, there will be greater openness and willingness to share,” he said.

That’s what Hawley hopes will happen. “The way I look at it is that TSA’s most important process is information management,” Hawley said. 

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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