Friday, November 05, 2004

Ideas and amoebas in the civil service 

The Straits Times has a report today on how the civil service encourages its officers to create small groups to generate ideas on issues and suggestions for change. These groups are called amoebas because of their short lifespans, just like the single-celled organisms they are named after.

One such group was described as follows:

Six young civil servants...from the Finance Ministry...in 2001...gathered information from transport experts, then brainstormed ways to reduce car prices while keeping in mind the Transport Ministry's concerns about traffic congestion... Their idea was not new but they made a compelling case to cut car ownership taxes and shift more towards usage charges to manage traffic demand.
The six civil servants from the Finance Ministry should be commended for their proposal. What is left unanswered is why the Transport Ministry couldn’t come up with it themselves.

Most organisations actually should have little problem generating ideas in-house. The real problem — especially in large organisations — is in getting these ideas noticed, evaluated and implemented. Organisations that have difficulty in coming up with solutions for problems that they have identified probably need to first find a way to tap their employees more effectively for ideas. The civil service’s use of small groups like the amoebas is just one example of what can be done.

Tapping outsiders for new ideas — as opposed to tapping outsiders for help in developing nascent ideas — becomes important mainly when a problem is not well understood, or not even recognised. A good organisation actively scans the external environment for such ideas. The not-so-good ones have such ideas foistered upon them. Very often, they come in the form of disruptive innovations that ruin existing businesses.

The other situation where an organisation may need to reach outside is when its existing processes are ill-equipped to handle the solution that has been found. For example, even after Compaq found that Dell’s direct computer selling business model is more profitable, its commitment to its distributors made it difficult to exploit the former.

The civil service is the archetypal large organisation. Turning it into an innovative one is not an easy task.


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