Larger companies can also suffer from a lack of ability to do small projects. All it might take to try out a new idea could be a web site design for $250, a $20/month hosting service for a few months, and $100 for some search engine ad keywords to build publicity. But by the time the idea has gone through the company's formal approval process, the window of opportunity might well have passed; the idea may have been watered down beyond usefulness by those in the approval chain wanting to "add value"; or the idea may end up being coldly rejected without explanation, deflating the morale of the employee who came up with it.
From the management side, some managers may feel that many employees do not have sufficient apprecation for how corporate funds need to be allocated, since it is not their own money. Also, some managers who support 20% time and communities of practice may feel like they are extending themselves, and as a result may be reluctant to risk additional monetary and political capital on employee initiatives that have no guarantee of returning immediate results.
- Description of project/initiative
- Minimum amount of employee contribution required
- Desired amount of employee contribution requested (if above the minimum)
- High-level breakdown for how the funds will be used
The submission is then reviewed by the leadership team (usually non-managers) of the community of practice. Using very broad and generous criteria, they decide whether to accept or reject a submission. A submission will typically not be rejected unless it is entirely outside of the scope of the community of practice (e.g. an idea to build woodworking sheds proposed to a community of practice for database developers), or it directly contradicts the core mission/principles/values of the company.
Once the submission has been posted to the site, the members of the community can express their support (e.g. "like" button). An idea that has more than N number of supporters (N can be 1) is open to the pledging of funds. Once the annual bonus is announced, employees have a time window (say 2 weeks) to pledge a portion of their bonus to any number of ideas, up to the full amount of their bonus. During this time, they can freely shift their pledges back and forth between projects, as they observe how their peers pledge funds. At the end of the time window, all projects that have met their minimum funding requirement will have their pledged funds matched by the company, and the net amount is then allocated to the idea submitter's budget.
Let's look at an example. John submits a project to the web development community of practice with a minimum employee contribution requirement of $200 and a desired contribution of $500. The project, a professionally produced video and web site that showcases the company's expertise with an emerging web technology, is approved by the leadership team of the web development community and posted to the site. Five of his colleagues support the project, and three of them pledge $100 each to the project. John himself pledges $200, leading to a net pledged amount of $500. The company pays out a bonus that is sufficient to cover all of the contributions. Since the minimum requirement is met, the company matches the pledged funds and the project is funded for a net amount of $1000 which is allocated to John's budget. Employees use their 20% time to work on the project. John and his colleagues star in the video, and get a lot of visibility for themselves and for their company. The next year, John's management formally sponsors him to represent the company on an industry web standards board.
By limiting the employee contributions to bonus money, the company has a capped, controllable cost each year. The bonus pool will naturally reflect the company's prosperity, and its ability to contribute to the bonus fund. When business is booming, the company can afford to fund plenty of employee ideas. When times are tough, program funding will be reduced automatically.
It's entirely possible that some of these ideas will lead to new products and services that will generate additional revenue for the company -- in which case the company could pay back the employee contribution along with a dividend, in recognition of the employee's willingness to invest their own money at the very beginning.
- Communities of practice are often full of people who think alike and have similar skillsets. As a result, they also have common weaknesses. For example, software development engineers are not usually the best at creating visually compelling presentations. And those inside the company who might be able to help are often busy or otherwise unavailable. By freeing employees to contract for talent outside of their companies, they can fill the gaps in their skillsets quickly and move forward with their ideas more successfully.
- For people who talk the talk, the Bonus Fund gives them a way to put their money where their mouth is. Instead of complaining about why they can't get funding from bureaucrats who "don't get it", they can now appeal directly to their peers for support. If their project is successful, they've proven their concept. Even if they fail, they've learned a valuable lesson about what doesn't work and can move on to other ideas. Either way, they're expanding their understanding and developing their capabilities.
- IT employees can bypass layers of management and contract directly with open source software developers to implement features that are of immediate value to their jobs, while simultaneously advancing the state of the art for the whole industry. They can also donate funds to non-profit technology organizations (e.g. Mozilla Foundation, Linux Foundation, Eclipse Foundation, etc) to support open standards-based, open source solutions in their areas of work. There is plenty of precedent for corporate matching funds for employees who donate to charitable organizations. There is even precedent for employees contributing their own money, without any matching funds, to corporate political action committees over which they have no direct control. Technologists can be as personally committed to their ideals as others are about influencing government and advancing other causes. Having their company support their ideals can be a huge boost to their overall job satisfaction.
- Employees who share knowledge freely and widely, who raise the level of overall knowledge and wisdom in their community of practice, will have gained a strong reputation among their peers, and will likely attract a commensurate level of contributions to their projects. A group of highly respected employees might be able to finance ambitious projects through the Bonus Fund, sustaining efforts largely through the continued support of their peers. As a result, they can take the long view, keeping the company's highest vision and fundamental purpose in mind, and not have to compromise as often on shorter-term tactical points.
According to payscale.com, as of January 2011, US Companies with over 5000 employees have median annual bonuses of approximately $5000, so there is an ample source of funds:
Even if only around 10% of the population in these companies choose to participate in the Bonus Fund, and they each only contribute 10% of their bonus, that's still an impressive $250,000 of employee contributions, which when matched yields $500,000 a year that employees can spend at their discretion on projects that are the most compelling to them!