Coffeehouses came into vogue as common meeting places during the Age of Enlightenment. In the growing café culture, people like Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly, and John Canton came together in collaboration to discuss and advance their ideas with intellectual equals, resulting in new and exciting advance in thought on science, politics, and religion propelled by debate and heavy doses of caffeine.

Gathering smart people together in a collaborative environment resulted in great ideas. And while that lesson feels timeless, in today’s productivity-focused workplace it is, unfortunately, becoming rarer despite continual advances in the collaborative tools and social media that would seem to encourage it.

Is getting your best and brightest together and filling them with coffee enough to generate great ideas for your organization? It’s a start, but it’s not the whole recipe. To establish a vibrant café culture in your organization, it’s important to understand how great ideas grow, and which environments are the most fertile for fostering this growth.

where_good_ideas_come_from_book(stevenberlinjohnson.com)

In his book “Where Good Ideas Come From,” Steve Johnson posits that great ideas are really a result of a “stacked platform” of spare parts from other ideas. Put more clearly, world-changing ideas generally aren’t the result of one eureka moment by a lone scientist in lab, but rather they are pieced together over time through collaboration with other individuals and through observation of existing technologies and processes. Artists borrow tools and techniques from each other and from the world they live in and incorporate those into their work. The same is true of thinkers, technologists, and engineers of every kind.

Take the assembly line, which is commonly ascribed as Henry Ford’s greatest innovation. But the truth is that Ford actually synthesized several ideas Ransom E. Olds had used for almost 10 years and then added new ideas – chief among them conveyor belts — from other parts of the business world. He was even further inspired by a tour of some incredibly efficient meatpacking plants in Chicago. Ford’s world changer of an idea was actually a more refined iteration of accepted business process. However, the spare idea parts he bolted together put the world on the road.

In Franklin’s day, café culture proved to be the best environment to trade those spare parts and further the discussion on innovative ideas. This liquid network allowed for a transformation and refinement of an initial notion into the stacked platform that resulted some truly world changing ideas.

For most companies, one truly great idea can make all the difference. Imagine the benefit to the average organization if it could foster a digital version of this same café culture. Establishing that environment isn’t as difficult as it sounds. it all starts with providing appropriate digital tools — platforms like Microsoft SharePoint — that give associates access to the structures in which café culture can take root. But getting the most out of that platform is a strategic and cultural process, as much as it is a technological one.

Those specific strategies will necessarily vary from business to business. However there are elements that are common to every challenge. Here are seven approaches you can take that will help build your company’s digital café culture:

Champion Cross-Pollination

In many corporate cultures, sharing ideas across the organization requires too much effort and often leads to frustration. Those obstacles need to be removed. A company’s best ideas may evolve from the unrelated spare parts found across the entire enterprise. Make sure there is a clear message from leadership that great ideas will come from collaborating across the company org chart and not solely in your immediate work group. And make sure you publicly reward and celebrate these wins.

Lead By Example

Prove that the leadership of the company fully supports collaboration across the entire organization. Show that leadership embraces and uses technologies that help users collaborate.

Be Technically Social

Social technologies can be an easy way to draw users to you digital café because most enterprise-ready social collaboration solutions are based on familiar concepts from social sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter that have already been widely adopted by your target users. Because of the Facebook effect, users are now trained to receive information through activity feeds, tag content and pictures to help draw attention to them for peers, and freely comment or “like” articles and content. All these types of behaviors make it easier to engage in cross-organization collaboration with very little effort or oversight.

Unlock Your “Spare Parts”

Spare parts for new ideas are generated through past projects, research, education, collaboration, and even experience with previous employers. New content needs to be published on an ongoing basis and required on the completion of projects. Again, this is where collaboration technology can be leveraged with your intranet or extranet to make sure this content is easily available.

For example, use blogs and case studies to publish information about current and past projects and make this easily available. Make sure these are detailed enough so readers understand the problems being solved by the solution and the technology and strategies that were used. Further, tune your search functionality to help your associates see organization activity by keyword. Steer users towards blogs and white papers along with documents and files. Effective searches can even help find people and expertise along with your files. Microblogging or short descriptions of what projects employees are working on will help tip off peers working on similar projects – a great opportunity for collaboration.

Be Chatty

Chat and instant messaging tools are effective for short, informal conversations and idea sharing across the enterprise. Take advantage of them. Communication is the beginning of collaboration.

Reward Contribution

Most organizations find a small number of key individuals are contributing the most content. Make sure you have a way to monitor and identify your high rollers. A defined and public reward system (real or perceived) for this behavior can help encourage others to follow their lead.

Make The Coffee

Some innovation still needs to happen face-to-face. Establish a relaxed, collaborative environment for these types of meetings. Find reasons to get people together and you’ll be excited by what happens. Seeing people collaborate over a cup of coffee is rewarding and hugely important. Encourage and sponsor user groups from inside or outside your organization to meet regularly on-premise in your organization. Their real-world interactions will translate to the digital space.

Café culture is at the heart of business success, whether you know it or not. Productivity is no longer solely a result of desk time – if it ever was. Getting smart people to talk will benefit your business and your people. It worked for Ben Franklin and Henry Ford, and I guarantee it’ll work for you, too.

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