Keeping Employees Creative in a Downturn

Despite the recessionor because of itMasterCard, Disney, and others are asking all employees to brainstorm

On July 24, MasterCard (MA) will host a Webcast of PowerPoint slides and short videos on various directions the company could take once the U.S. economy turns up again. The online presentations will feature findings from seven members of an internal, international scenario-planning "task force," which has been gathering ideas for months from MasterCard employees at all levels around the world.

In the recent past, such a production would have been reserved for senior management. But this Webcast will be open to all 5,500 employees of the credit-card giant, from fresh-faced interns up to its 58-year-old chief executive, Robert Selander. The aim: to invite anyone with an idea for new products, services, or internal processes to speak up, and encourage staff members to "bring their best selves to work" during the downturn, says Rebecca Ray, senior vice-president of MasterCard's Global Talent Management & Development department.

MasterCard's initiative takes a page from innovation exercises at technology companies such as IBM (IBM), whose annual online "innovation jams" have, since 2006, allowed employees at all levels to submit ideas online during a 90-hour, round-the-clock brainstorming session. But the mission seems more critical today as companies grapple with keeping employees creative and motivated when job and budget cuts, declining revenue, and losses dominate the headlines. (While holding up relatively well, MasterCard reported that first-quarter earnings fell 18%, to $367.3 million, as revenue dipped 2%, to $1.2 billion.)

"I have seen more nontech companies get into Webcasts for all employees. In fact, I see them not using Webcasts for senior leaders as much," says Prasad Kaipa, a former Apple (AAPL) research fellow and now an innovation coach for such companies as Cisco (CSCO), Ford (F), and PepsiCo (PEP).

A Big Cost Saver

In early July, for instance, accounting and consulting firm Deloitte offered a Webcast of PowerPoint slides, live polls, and live conversation hosted by John Kao, author of Innovation Nation and head of Deloitte's Institute for Large Scale Innovation. The Webcast, planned as the inaugural in a series, was open to Deloitte staff at various levels, as well as outside registrants. More than 550 people logged on; outside participants came from Kaiser Permanente, Coca-Cola (KO), and ExxonMobil (XOM), among others.

Webcasts are attractive for another reason these days: They cost much less than flying employees to big-think conferences, especially as prices of high-speed broadband decline and technical capabilities rise.

Some companies are finding other ways to exploit new media tools to spread ideas. At Walt Disney (DIS), Luis Fernandez, a senior vice-president at Disney Consumer Products, is encouraging staff members to e-mail short video clips they create to one another, to share experiences at industry trade shows, conventions, or even museums. 

Called "zip clips" internally, these mini-productions are meant to inspire fellow employees who might not have the same research and conference travel budgets they had in the past, says Fernandez. He adds that the self-help program is a direct result of the recession. "I'd be lying if I told you we didn't have budget cuts," he says. "But it is really about making sure we cut things that are not really encouraging the teams. We do not question the value of innovation, even in a recession. It's important now more than ever."

The smartest companies will continue with such brainstorming projects after the recession runs its course. "Even when the economy recovers, these practices are a good strategy," says executive coach Kaipa. "That's because the more hope, vision, imagination employees experience, the more they feel they have the power and freedom to innovate."

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