More and more companies are seeing the value in consumer community panels. The concept is fairly simple - attract and retain a group of consumers or stakeholders to engage in conversations ongoing. From those conversations you learn about your brand and how the public engages with it. These insights drive innovation and growth of the brand.
What is interesting and perhaps discussed a bit less is that your employees are your consumers as well. While it's true that they may have a different view of your brand, they are often amongst the brand's consumers and tend to have a pretty good idea of what the brand represents. So then, why is it more unusual for a company to formalize discussions with employees about new ideas? Certainly some companies do test their products with employees. For example, some major packaged goods companies ask employees to participate in taste tests when they develop new flavours or product types. And of course there are other examples. But, not all companies put in place an ongoing process such as a community panel for engaging their employees in the thought process for new ideas. Why?
Well, one reason may be a worry about bias. There is always the concern that asking employees to weigh in on new ideas may be inviting incorrect assumptions. Perhaps your employees are influenced by the fact that they work for your company and have a better or worse idea of your product(s) as a result. Also possible is that being 'in the know' as an inside person, an employee may not be objective. While these are valid concerns, they don't have to keep a company from getting opinions from a key part of their consumer base. Any research may have bias, the important thing is to understand it and account for it. For example, you might not use employee research to assess how memorable your ad is, viewed amongst other ads. Employees may be more likely to remember it, as they are already aware and involved with your brand. But, there's no reason they are not able to assess how impacting, likeable or clear the ad is for your typical consumer.
Your employees may not be able to 'forget' what they already know about a brand and look at a new idea as though they had no experience with a brand. However, they do have the ability to gauge an idea on its merits, and to assess what the public will think of a new idea. And they can give an excellent perspective that may be underutilized. For example, employees can be used to participate in crowdsourcing or crowdvoting*. Essentially what this means is, it has been shown that a group of people can be very accurate at guessing what other people will say or think. So then one approach can be to ask employees to rate how other consumers will respond, and the aggregate responses can be very useful and insightful. Using an ongoing system of employee feedback, such as an employee panel, can make this type of research very feasible and cost effective.
There are other great uses as well. For example, consider this article which gives a great example of ideation using a company's own employee base. Faced with a thorny problem to solve, the company found answers within groups not normally tasked with this type of problem. In addition, those who offered solutions were happy to be asked, feeling a sense of pride at being part of solution generation process. And this represents a key benefit for employee research - employees often appreciate being engaged in the thought process. Just asking people to participate conveys that their input is valued. It is a win-win as the insights team gathers useful input and the average employee gets to participate in an interesting process that helps them feel more valued.
So then what is the right way to go about involving employees in a problem solving process? Well, there can be many right ways, but it is engaging for employees to be involved ongoing, rather than just contacted sporadically. Companies that have a focus on ongoing innovation as well as employee engagement may choose to run a community panel of employees. By doing so, organizations tap the idea-generation and problem solving potential of their employees, while at the same time making them feel listened to and valued. A community panel of employees gives an organization the ability to ask questions without waiting for an annual or semi-annual survey which is typically HR focused. A community panel provides an excellent forum for asking one off quick questions, as well as longer and more involved surveys and discussion boards or ongoing suggestion boxes - in short, it's a very effective tool for keeping a dialogue going.
* "At a 1906 country fair in Plymouth, eight hundred people participated in a contest to estimate the weight of a slaughtered and dressed ox. Statistician Francis Galton observed that the mean of all eight hundred guesses, at 1197 pounds, was closer than any of the individual guesses to the true weight of 1198 pounds. This has contributed to the insight in cognitive science that a crowd's individual judgments can be modeled as a probability distribution of responses with the mean centered near the true mean of the quantity to be estimated."