AT&T's massive workforce of more than a quarter of a million people has turned out to be quite an idea generator.
The AT&T Innovation Pipeline -- TIP -- encourages all employees to submit ideas that they believe will make money, save money, enhance customers' experience or improve operations.
About 130,000 employees have registered with the program, according to Igal Elbaz, vice president of Ecosystem and Innovation for AT&T Services. The stats for the seven-year-old program are impressive: So far, there have been 130,000 participants from 50 states and 54 countries. More than 40,000 ideas have been submitted, 80 projects developed and $44 million in seed funding distributed. Several of the ideas born in TIP have been patented.
The ultimate goal for the company is to generate ideas and empower the workforce. For employees, it is recognition and empowerment. And there could be a bit of money for some of the top ideas. That, however, clearly is not what is driving acceptance of the program.
It is a long road. An employee's idea is considered on an internal crowd sourcing platform by other employees, who comment and give the entry -- which are listed in either on "Start It" or "Grow It" tracks -- a thumbs up or down. Elbaz said that the most entries are those aimed at generating revenue.
The top ten ideas in a time period participate in American Idol-type competitions that are held every few months. Four or five of the survivors of that phase have the opportunity to present their ideas to top leadership. Those senior executives have the option of signing off on funding.
The day that TIP finalists meet the top corporate executives is special for Elbaz.
"One of the most emotional parts of my job, one of the most exciting, is the front line selections,” he said. "They are presented to top leadership in a very personal manner. The executives listen in a very approachable manner. They get questions and suggestions on how to shape their idea a little and then there is an up or down vote.”
The employees are fans of TIP as well.
"Just knowing that each and every employee has access to a venue to share, present, and compete for corporate sponsorship is an incredible and invaluable aspect of TIP and AT&T as a company," wrote Bellaire, Texas-based Jim Huempfner, an assistant vice president for Product Marketing Management, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), in response to emailed questions. Huempfner received funding for NumberSync, a platform that enables use of a subscriber's mobile number with multiple devices.
NumberSync is one of the most compelling graduates of the program, according to Elbaz. Another is DriveMode, which silences incoming texts and sends calls to voice mail when activated. As the name suggests, the goal is to combat distracted driving.
Shavonne Nelson, a service representative based in Detroit submitted what became AT&T DriveMode in 2011, which was TIP's first year. She described her appearance before AT&T executives to present the idea. She wrote in an email to Telco Transformation that the room was crowded with senior executives, including Randall Stephenson, who now is chairman and CEO.
Elbaz links TIP to the significant transition that AT&T itself is going through. Moving from being a hardware to a software company means that employees must be flexible. Nothing seems as set in stone as before. This stimulates innovation in other areas and creates an atmosphere that suggests the highly structured corporate environment of the past may be loosening a bit. "When going through a cultural transformation you are saying, 'Hey, you all have a fair chance. Your ideas are important.' You are empowering employees to step up."
Nelson agrees that TIP is empowering. "I think it's great that AT&T is listening to their employees," she wrote. "It's not just those that are technically savvy, but people like me who have great ideas and need a place to explore them. I don't have the tech background on how to make an app work, but I had the vision and the company not just listened to me but heard me."
— Carl Weinschenk, Contributing Editor, Telco Transformation