GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), headquartered in the UK, is the world’s 2nd largest pharmaceutical company. Its consumer healthcare operation, a major business unit, offers many household names such as Aquafresh, Lucozade, Sensodyne, Panadol as well as smaller, regional and local brands such as Contac in Asia.
In 2004, in an effort to spur growth, consumer healthcare executives decided to focus on its big global brands, and centralize marketing and R&D for them into the Futures Group. Experts were pulled from around the globe into one base near London and another in New Jersey. The role of individual country marketing teams remained critical, however, for activating global plans, and growing lower priority regional and local brands.
Peter Robbins was asked to scope out, set up, and lead the network. It came to be known as the Spark Network; the word “spark” seemed right because the network was intended to light up the company with new ideas. Our network participants came to be known as “Sparkies.”
Peter’s boss, Donna Sturgess, then the company’s head of innovation, sent Peter around the regional presidents to source nominees, people who were creative in their businesses. We got marketing managers from Japan, Germany and Canada, and some R&D people; a total of 50 people in all. Our mission was to train them as experts in innovation, by sharing best practices and providing access to innovation resources.
In early 2007, we kicked off a series of teleconferences that we’ve held monthly since then. We had a tight budget, so the virtual approach was key. The first one was devoted to giving a sense of what was intended. We got a very positive reaction. The next teleconferences – supplemented by Web-enabled discussion groups – allowed discussion about objectives, challenges, and the overall agenda for local innovation. People wrote down their ideas electronically on a shared document, while on calls. Topics ranged from barriers to innovation in the company, to developing a code of behavior for the network.
Next, we put together a state-of-the-art website with collaborative features like instant messaging and blogging. It also housed innovation tools and processes from leading edge authors and companies. The member area was searchable by geography and expertise, with detailed profiles so individuals could be tapped for specific projects and sub-teams. The site also featured some syndicated services - such as global market trends – useful to Sparkies. Over time, the site’s functionality was expanded to help members convert their ideas into concise marketing concept statements, via a series of modules on creative writing developed by a copywriter.
Each year, the Future Group held “ideation” sessions for each global brand, to develop and incubate new ideas, platforms or territories. They were multiple day, invitation-only, high-octane sessions bringing together outside experts, consumers, and innovators. I wanted to get the Spark Network plugged into that, so I brought five Sparkies along to each session in 2008. It was a great learning opportunity for them. Those who attended were asked to run a local or national event for their colleagues around a key local brand, and use the Spark Network as a sounding board for the results.
In May 2008, we finally had our first face-to-face get together, an Innovation Jam where 75 people assembled in Kew, London for two and a half days. Our CEO came, and we invited a few innovation speakers. Our Sparkies were divided into “innovation agency” teams, and given a real life project assignment involving the identification and validation of new ideas that could drive growth in our top brands. It exposed them to a systematic and consistent way of thinking about innovation, and generated some ideas that made their way back into the business. It also had a social benefit, as people from different countries met “live” for the first time. We decided to repeat the event every year.
The company’s next annual meeting, held at corporate headquarters, was scheduled for May 2009. Traditionally, it was used to showcase innovation activities around the world. We were excited about participating. The Sparkies took a collaborative approach to developing their presentation. To start, each member was asked to submit an idea, by inputting it into proprietary software for easy sharing. Next, they reviewed each other’s submissions, making builds and adding comments on the site. We then gave them a virtual creative writing course, to help them express and illustrate their ideas. Thousands of GSK people, from a few facilities where Consumer Healthcare teams were based, were given access to the site, and invited to make comments and vote on the best idea. The winners made a Top 50 list; the idea descriptions were blown up and mounted on easels for display.
In June 2009, the GSK Senior Leaders meeting in London gave us another opportunity to showcase our work in an event we called “Spark Network brings the X Factor to GSK.” We displayed our Top 50 ideas, and asked delegates to vote on their favorites by mobile phone texting. The winner was selected for commercialization, and the author of the idea was recognized as Sparky of the Year 2009. It transpired that one of Peter’s own ideas won the tournament and he, fittingly, became the GSK Sparky of the Year for 2009. At the meeting, the ideas were represented as fully finished concepts, complete with appropriate visuals which were tastefully displayed on easels around a special Innovation Zone designated for that purpose in the meeting.
The Spark Network now has over 90 members. It is highly valued by its members for giving them an arena for expressing their own ideas, meeting like-minded people, and gaining skills through modules like “innovation metrics,” and “the power of storytelling for brands.” It also had reinvigorated some of our regional brands.
Finding a “home” at GSK
- Challenge: We’re often asked whether the network is designed for idea generation or for capability building. It’s for both – and we feel that’s important, to combine theory and practice – but we do end up sitting a little uneasily within the formal structure of the company
- Solution: Continue to showcase Sparkles Network activities, with attention to outputs – ideas and, increasingly, business building
- Solution: Make sure there is a champion for the network within the formal structure
Sustaining an informal network
- Challenge: Participating in the network is a voluntary activity; Sparkies have day jobs so there’s always the risk that people will come and go depending on their work loads.
- Solution: Make participation so rewarding and fun that Sparkies can’t bear not to be involved!
- A mechanism for driving innovation and business growth beyond global brands
- High impact (90 members linked to their respective regions) at a relatively low cost
The power of virtual networks in bringing people and ideas together. The Spark Network essentially is a substitute for the traditional, structural fix: a centralized organization. In an increasingly global economy, with ever increasing cost pressures, and with the benefit of the latest technology, virtual networks are an attractive if not essential option.
People won’t work for “nothing.” Sparkies aren’t paid for their efforts. They are motivated by all sorts of intangibles - the pride of being selected as a creative thinker, the fun and stimulation of interacting with other innovators, the satisfaction of having one’s ideas heard, and the opportunity to learn new skills and apply them. The job of Spark Network leadership is to keep them motivated, to make sure that the work remains fun and satisfying, as well as productive.
Peter Robbins, former Global Head of Innovation Excellence, GSK