Idea competitions can boost innovation in the workplace

Idea and case competitions are popular tools for creating innovation in large companies. But to reap the benefits, great care and an eye for social dynamics is required, says Hanne Westh Nicolajsen, who has performed case studies at the consultancy firm Rambøll, among others.

ResearchBusiness IT Department

What is your current research about?

I am interested in how we can use technology to motivate employees to innovate. I have done extensive research on idea competitions, most recently through a case study at Rambøll, where I followed the implementation of a social platform that allows employees to submit ideas, comment on each other's ideas, and select 'winners'.

If you keep idea competitions completely open, you will typically get little activity, because it is unfocused. You need to select specific topics or ask employees to come up with ideas for new services or ways of doing things within certain areas. Rambøll chose five focus areas. Their focus was not only to create innovation, but also to get employees to think more innovatively, so the ideas wouldn’t only come from the usual handful of people. So we investigated whether a technical tool can pull more people in.

What have you discovered so far?

Many employees do not really have the courage to submit ideas. Firstly, they do not feel particularly innovative, secondly, they are uncertain what innovation is at all. But as they see ideas coming into the platform, they begin to think that they too can join in. All ideas are super important because new ideas usually create inspiration, but one problem with idea competitions is that many ideas will neither win nor be realized. This discourages participation. Rambøll decided to let groups of people win and promised to implement at least three ideas.

To determine the winners, Rambøll let employees vote with virtual money, so there was an element of gamification. This led to a lot of knowledge sharing and networking, because people discovered ideas from across the organization. But the method was no good for finding the best ideas, because here social dynamics are at play - you vote for people you like and ideas you understand. In the end, Rambøll screened all ideas and selected five in addition to the winners that also held potential.

Even when using technology to give everyone a voice, this cannot stand alone. It requires great effort in terms of making it easier to contribute for people who are not used to it. One must seek out those who do not usually contribute and perhaps reward ideas that will not be used.

What do you find most exciting about your field?

When companies start 'playing' with innovation, things you never thought possible can happen. It's amazing how much you can achieve with very little, and in turn how little you can achieve with a lot, if you do not understand social dynamics. Less performance management, more room for experimenting, making mistakes and hearing out more employees - that, I think, can boost innovation.

Further information

Hanne Westh Nicolajsen, Associate Professor, phone +45 7218 5073, email

Vibeke Arildsen, Press Officer, phone 2555 0447, email