The Virtual Suggestion Box
Rich Kneece of Vocoli on workplace communication and engagement among employees
The old suggestion box used to be a fair way for employees to offer ideas at their organization. However, over the years, it’s become a rusty, forgotten box with little hope of future use.
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In this podcast, Rich Kneece of The Massachusetts Technology Corporation tells about their product Vocoli, an application designed to accept employee input via computer or mobile device. The result is instant information which management can use to implement change faster. Scroll down for a link to Vocoli.
Brandon Nys: Welcome to Safety Experts Talk. Take a look at our website at CreativeSafetySupply.com/podcast for related links in the transcript of this podcast.
Brandon: Hello, and welcome to Safety Experts Talk. I am Brandon Nys.
Kyle Holland: I am Kyle Holland. Today’s podcast is all about workplace improvement. Specifically, a unique and forward thinking tool your organization can use to improve workplace communication and engagement among their employees. In just a bit, I’m going to be talking with Rich Kneece from Vocoli about their new virtual suggestion box. But first, Brandon, let’s talk about the importance of workplace communication.
Brandon: You know, Kyle, I think communication and engagement are extremely important in the workplace. They are really two of the most important pillars any organization trying to pursue improvement.
Kyle: You know that’s very true and today’s guest has a tool that should really help bring employees together and foster innovative ideas. But first, maybe we should touch on what’s wrong with the old version. What’s wrong with the old suggestion box?
Brandon: Well, I think it’s more of how it’s used in most cases than what’s really wrong with the box itself.
Kyle: As in what way?
Brandon: Well, the suggestion box began as a great way for employees to offer ideas and really engage in the improvement process of their organization, but over the years it’s become a lost dusty wood box and it’s lost it’s appeal. The employees don’t like it, the management doesn’t like it. I mean, really, who wants to open up that box and sort through all the suggestions that are in there?
Kyle: You know that’s a good point Brandon, and if management is not going take the time to open the box and go through the suggestions regulary, their employees are not going take the time to write them out and really put some thought into them.
Brandon: That’s exactly right and therefore you’ve lost what the suggestion box was originally designed to do.
Kyle: Well, then maybe it is time for a change. And maybe the box has lost its luster. And maybe organizations need a new product to help boost engagement and collaboration between the staff.
Brandon: You know, I think you’re right. And with everything going digital, I mean iPads and tablets and everything, virtual suggestion boxes are really starting to catch a lot of wind. Especially in the lean community it’s a very forward thinking way to get employees engaged in the culture of an organization and be involved in the improvement process.
Kyle: Yeah, I think it solves a major issue that you pointed out and ideas don’t just hide in a box for days, months and who knows. Instead, they’re out there for all to see instantly and that engagement process starts immediately
Brandon: And that right there is really extremely important when working through the idea process.
Kyle: Well, I think it’s a big move forward and I’m excited to hear more about what Vocoli is about.
Brandon: Yeah, I’m really excited as well and I’d like to hear exactly what Richard has a say right from the horse’s mouth.
Kyle: Alright, well let’s get started and introduce our guest. Rich Kneece is of The Massachusetts Technology Corporation. Rich joins us today from the greater Boston area and is the chief innovator behind our topic of conversation today, Vocoli. Rich thank you for joining us today welcome to the podcast.
Rich Kneece: Thanks for having me Kyle. Glad to be here.
Kyle: So before we dive into Vocoli, could you give us a little background on yourself and how you ended up with The Massachusetts Technology Corporation?
Rich: Sure. We started MTC in 2001, great timing right after the DOT COM bust. It’s been a fun ride ever since, you know, we started about 14 years ago. We initially started, for the most part we’d been an agency. An application development shop that folks would come to us looking for help with the process or a problem, and weren’t really good at finding solutions, technical solutions, that we’ll help them solve those problems. So, that’s really where the company came from.
Previously, I’d worked for a couple large companies. I worked for IBM and Aetna Healthcare and got some experience at seeing some of the inefficiencies of larger companies. And then I had worked for some startups.
Kyle: When initially did you guys launch and make your product available to the public?
Rich: Vocoli, as a product, we launched recently. You know, we were in a stealth mode really from the beginning of 2013 all the way through the end of the summer. You know, we had some beta customers, and September 2013 launched to the public. The really official launch of the product.
Kyle: Alright, Rich. If you would, why don’t you introduce Vocoli to us, and kind of tell us where the inspiration came from, and what led you to where you’re at now.
Rich: Sure, sure. Well, as I mentioned, customers would come to us with technical problems and we’d help use that technology expertise to find solutions. So, you know, we’ve done a lot of work traditionally just because the nature where we are: Boston. We have some of the largest and most successful biotech’s and also some of the best hospitals in the country. So, currently, we have three of the top 10 right within our city. So all three of those hospitals actually are customers of ours. So we had built different types of applications, some of them clinically focused and other ones were more process focused where one of the customers actually approached us. They had a typical box on the wall, you know, the Employee Suggestion Box. And that’s a nice touchy-feely idea but you know that a lot of those ideas go into a big, black hole, when they were submitted in there.
And he realized there was a problem. And, you know, they really wanted to get employees involved, they wanted to get ideas from them. And, most importantly, they were really looking for areas to save money. And he knew this wasn’t working. So, you know, at first they just put somebody on it and said okay you gotta pull the ideas of these boxes weekly and log them and put them in an Excel spreadsheet. That didn’t work. And then they approached us saying “hey, you know, we really want to create some sense of process for these ideas that are coming through the organization that might help us improve.”
So they asked us to build something that had a workflow in place and they could log when ideas were submitted, and whether they were progressed and implemented, and really a lot of information related to them in reporting.
That was so successful at that organization, we actually built about a half a dozen more of these types of platforms for other organizations. Different industries. A couple more were in healthcare, a couple were in manufacturing. We really said “Hey, you know, at some point let’s make a product out of this. Let’s take all we’ve learned from all these organizations’ best practices and build a product that we can share with other companies that’s really already built.” And that’s really where Vocoli came from.
And then we also wanted to improve upon it. We realized different organizations have different philosophies. We didn’t want it to all be this “approve or reject” an idea. Some of the organizations wanted more collaborative types of things. So we made sure when we built the technology that we wanted it to be flexible to adapt to what the culture was in that organization so that we’re not making those decisions for them. Depending, really, how the organization is. It can adapt to how it works within that company.
Kyle: Talk about that. How tough is that? Because, when you’re creating a product like this, you want to market it toward as many clients as possible so people can get the best value out of it. How hard is that, and any challenges along the way that really stood out that in trying to make this a unique product but that anybody could use?
Rich: Yeah, well, you know, I’d like to think it’s pretty hard because that means it’s harder for somebody to just take everything we’ve built and build it. So, it wasn’t easy. And, you know, again, I think there are some great products out there. There really are. And, you know, we’re not saying our way of doing things is always the right way of doing things.
So, that was a big part of the focus of when we were building the application is we realized that some of these organizations wanted to focus on these big ideas. These big, grand ideas that are going to help them develop a new product and get everybody involved and collaborating. They can come out with, you know, the next Xbox, or the next iPhone or the next Post-it Note that’s really going to change that organization.
We realized that was some of the organizations. And there were some products out there that really helped with that kind of mentality. You know, collaboration type of mentality.
There was also some organizations that just wanted to build up with these small ideas that maybe were ideas that weren’t within a person’s domain. So, for example, you might have a person that works in a large 10,000 employee organization that has a great idea regarding the cafeteria. It’s like “Hey, you guys should offer more healthy food and this is how it’s going to save money…” That’s not in their domain. That’s not in their job role but we want them to be able to share these ideas because maybe it works in another organization that had it. So that’s the small ideas that buildup.
We wanted our application to really serve both of those needs without them having have two different things. So that one may be more workflow based, the other was more collaborative based. And, you know, we wanted to take the best of both worlds. And it wasn’t easy.
But, also, you have to adapt to the culture of different organizations. Some organizations aren’t ready for that kind of collaborative piece of it. It’s just not in their DNA yet. Maybe will be someday. We’re not going to judge them. So we want to want to build an application that can be flexible enough to work for all of them.
Kyle: Right. And I want to get into that, to the process of how it all works, but first I’ve got to ask. The name “Vocoli”. Where did it come from, what brought that about?
Rich: Well, it was important for us come up with a name that was simple, easy to remember, that’s catchy. But most importantly, signified what we wanted to do. And, really, what we wanted to help companies do is help their teams be vocal. Speak up with issues, improvements. To let their voices be heard. I mean, we are not trying to turn these companies into democracies, right, but those are where some of the best ideas come from. And we also wanted those people the organization to feel engaged and to feel like their voice, or them being vocal, was important.
So you, you know, we were focusing not just on building these ideas, but on building improvement and the communication. And we also want a little bit of flair.
Rich: To go to be honest, in this day and age, you put 100 names up on the whiteboard and you’re like “Yeah, that’s a great name.” And reality is there aren’t a lot of domain names left. So that was the one almost we fell into that we were, you know, came up with a great name, we’re like “Great, that’s a great name. Oh, there’s no domains left.” So, this is the one where we said “It’s a great name, and there’s an available domain name.” I hate to say we’re naming a company because of that, but that certainly was a driver. Not the main driver, I mean, I think we came up with a name that really signifies what we’re trying to do. We’re not just trying to build these ideas, we’re trying to build the voices in all parts of the organization
Kyle: I think it fits, and it works. And regardless if it’s a process of elimination or not, it does work and it fits the motto. Well, let’s talk about it. Let’s see how this works. So, you talk about on your website “…creating a happier workplace with fresh perspectives”. You want to foster innovation and save money, get solutions faster and improve productivity. It sounds like what the goal of Vocoli is.
Kyle: Let’s kind of walk through it from start to finish for somebody that’s never heard of something like this. And we’ll call it for what it is, a virtual suggestion box. And an organization would get the product, why they would get the product, and how it can help and benefit any employee in that organization
Rich: Sure, sure. Well, I, I mean, I think you just said it. First we try to understand that organization before anything else. You know, we’re not trying to profess that our way of doing things, or the way we’d run an organization, is the right way. I mean, there are a million different successful companies that have very different cultures. I mean, UPS has a very different culture than Google. And they both work really well for their industries. So, that’s the first thing. We try to understand the cultural of that organization. Is it a more progressive organization, flatter where, maybe, they don’t have as many of those communication issues? Or, is it an old-style industrial manufacturing company that has these silos of information that they really can’t communicate?
So, once we try to understand that, we also try to understand how they are going to market a program like this. I think I have mentioned it before, to you and other people, that good intentions don’t always work. I mean, there have been a lot of employee suggestion programs or innovation programs that have failed miserably, and it’s not really because of lack of good intentions. It’s because of how they marketed it.
So we want to get an understanding and help them figure out how they’re going to market the program. Are they, for a successful idea that’s implemented, going to be offering a cash reward? Are they going to be offering vacation time? Or are they offering a point system where people can add up and do whatever? Or is it more just for they want to create an organization, an attitude, and a culture that people have good ideas?
Again, we’re not judging that organization and how they want to do that. But we first need to understand how they are going to do it. How are you going to market that program? And we want to understand have they tried something like this before? And why did it fail, or if they haven’t, why not?
So, you know, once we’ve got that determined, the base of the platform really has three to four user types.
There is a Contributor, which is everybody the company, or within that part of the company that’s going to use this program, would get a user name and a password. We can tie into their systems if they want to have that supply the usernames and passwords with a single sign-on or something like that. The Contributor, they have these great ideas. They want to collaborate and work with other people. They really have an opportunity, once they’ve logged in, to submit an idea. And they may submit an idea where they know what the problem is, and they want to say “This is the problem” with a description and “This is the solution.”
Or there are campaigns an organization can set up so, you know, you might have a moderator of the program that says “Hey, these are the five really big challenges we’re going through. What do you have as solutions?” And, you know, they may do that on a, just a period of time. So, January. I’m going to get as many ideas for this problem as possible. So they can submit to either one of those things.
Again, why a lot of these Employee Suggestion Programs have failed, among other reasons, is people are like “I’ve got a great idea.” But they don’t really do any homework on what the benefits are. It might be obvious, it might not. And they haven’t done the homework on how much it’s going to cost to implement a program like this. What is the ROI? What are the business aspects?
So, we’re trying to really promote that whole concept of an internal entrepreneur, or an “Intra-preneur”, you know, where somebody is really thinking about a business plan for ideas.
Is it going to save money? How much? Is it going to decrease accidents? Which can add up, certainly, to a cost in an organization. Will improve the service? How so? Will it improve revenues? Is it a new product that might sell more? So all these things. And then once they’ve done that we ask them “How hard is it to implement this idea? What’s the cost?What’s the time?” You know, they have an opportunity to put up additional documentation, video, photos, attachments, they can share credit for these ideas that they are submitting with other people.
And then finally, and this is a really important piece, is once someone submits the idea, they really have an opportunity of submitting it in two ways. They can either submit to this collaborative mode, where basically it goes into a big collaboration area where you’ve submitted it and then other people can up-vote or down-vote on this idea. And if you’ve got a 10,000 employee company, it might be somebody else in another city, and another division, that has gone through this before. So they can add comments to say “Hey, have you thought about this?” We can up-vote, down-vote those ideas and we can have that discussion on this idea.
And then you can improve upon their idea, the thing that they want to submit. Once they’ve gotten to the point where they feel like their idea’s ready, then they can submit the idea. It basically goes to that workflow process we talked about. It gets submitted to program moderator which is that second role. Quarterbacks these ideas as they come in. They really send them on to sponsors in the organization. And those sponsors really can take charge of that idea and get additional info from the contributor if they need to, give it some coaching on how to improve it, get the budget approved if it’s really going to be implemented.
And then, just as importantly, we really need to get a sense on how this program as a whole is working. So that moderator, you know, if an idea is implemented and it’s put into place, not only did we have the guess of that contributor, or the educated guess of that contributor, of how much money it’s going to save.
Six months later, the moderator and the sponsor put in real data. So that idea that was implemented actually saved this amount of money. And we can look. In the past year, so this program, as a whole: How much money has it saved and how has service improved? And so, all this real data they can look at it. And that dashboard and reporting in this program is critical, really, to the success. And that’s one reason that a lot of these programs have not succeeded in the past – not just the technology.
Kyle: Rich, what advice would you give somebody that’s on the edge. They want this product, they see it, but they’ve had nothing but bad feedback in the past. The suggestion box never worked. Other products have failed. What advice, or what would you tell somebody that’s just on the edge to get them over the hump and involved with your company?
Rich: Well, I mean, that’s a really good question. I mean, I think there’s different levels to that. The first thing we’d want to understand is, alright, let’s dig in a little. You never know. It could have been before the person’s time. Right? It could have been five years ago that the programs failed. Different set of people. And we really have no understanding of why it failed. But, I think the obvious things you can put your finger are: There was a lack of communication; lack of follow through; lack of measurement to see if these things worked.
So if we can get that, I think that’s the first thing, is we try to understand why it failed and what were their goals at that point. And probably a lot of the ones that failed they probably wouldn’t even be able to answer what their goals were initially. Hopefully we can get to the point where we’re helping them understand that if you had a little more process, understanding and communication involved—and technology can certainly not replace that, but it can help that—but, you know, I think in terms of advice, obviously they still need to be bought-in.
If you don’t have buy-in from the top in an organization to do something like this, regardless of, you know, how you’re rewarding or whether you are adding a reward system or not, you have to have buy-in from the top. Not just from that financial standpoint, but from the communication standpoint. That from the top, down, this is really important to our organization. We do want to hear your ideas, whatever happened in the past. You know, it’s a new day. So that, I think that’s a big part of the advice that we’d give them. We also would always recommend—er, not always, but very often would recommend, you know—let’s try it out in a smaller group.
Kyle: Well, a lot of our customers and listeners, they practice Lean. They do 5S, and are big believers in Kaizen. A product like this really seems like it would fit within their methodologies and ideologies. What was your thought process, if any, to benefit organizations like this.
Rich: Several of our customers, at least, that we have with Vocoli, and we had previously with those custom made things, are using a Lean methodology. Ah, I think, again, we’re not trying to profess the right way to run your organization. I mean, our goal, really, is to be the number one tool for employee engagement and communication. So, you know, we’re not trying to force that Lean mentality on anyone. But, if they are currently practicing Lean, the tool is flexible enough and works in that methodology.
So that whole thought of the manager approves or rejects an idea may not fit directly into a lean methodology. But certain ideas, you know, I mentioned that lunchroom thing, where serving healthier stuff in the cafeteria. You know, that’s outside of that person’s realm, or their responsibility. So that doesn’t really apply there.
But, you know, if they’re coming up with ideas on how to improve their process within their—let’s say it’s a manufacturing company or a healthcare company that uses lean—it may be something where our tool will adapt, and instead of an idea being submitted to that program moderator that there’s kind of an intermediary. Maybe its the department manager. So you have these ideas that you can choose whether it applies just to you, or the entire organization. And then, maybe, that department manager has the ability to get involved in that workflow. So, our opinion is really not to force any methodology on them, it’s to adapt to it.
Kyle: So you’ve been out since September 2013.
Kyle: What are you getting from your core customers now that will help you maybe enhance or improve the product down the road?
Rich: Well, I mean, I think that’s the key part of this. We can’t profess to build a tool that companies improve without us wanting to improve, and take their ideas. So, so far that the feedback’s really been outstanding. Right now, we’ve got a dozen or so customers that are helping us improve the product even more. You know, they’re also helping us adapt our product, so we’re looking at different various user product. We’re finding out “Hey, you know, this works really well in this organization if we adapt it and are flexible in a little different way.”
So again, that’s why that whole thought of us making a product very flexible and adaptable is so important. And, realistically, I mean, I’ve been involved in a number of startups and really never been more excited about the potential.
Kyle: So Rich, with the feedback and everything else as you guys of kind of evolved here in the last few months, what kind of upgrades are you guys looking to do for the future?
Rich: Yeah, sure. So we’re building some additional tools that really do focus on internal communication and employee engagement, and “Intra-preneurism.” One of the modules can help an employer understand how engaged the workforce is through these little bursts of data or, you know, micro-surveys. One of the things we found interesting is a recent study by a Gallop, analyzed employee engagement around the world. They looked around different countries and how engaged their employees were, and made criteria for what an engaged employee is. But, they found that about 30% of US employees were actually engaged in their jobs. And, you know, what’s surprising is 30% is one of the highest in the world. But, I mean, that just amazes me that only 30% of the workforce is actually fully engaged there jobs.
So, as a manager, it can give you heart palpitations when you don’t know whether your employees are happy, whether they’re unhappy, or they’re not engaged on kind of a macro level. And you don’t know how they’re doing this year compared to last year, unless it’s just purely anecdotal, you know. And this is even the managers that have the best intentions.
So, you know, we are creating these micro-surveys that when a user logs in, it asks these quick, non-obtrusive questions anonymously. You know, things like “Hey, are you feeling like you’re getting what you need from your manager?” And that’s it. I mean, it will be just one question a week.
The questions allow management to understand at a high level where their people stand. Ah, and it really allows them to compare this data more often than this annual HR survey that has a hundred questions and really doesn’t give useful data until three months later until too late. So, we feel like one question, once a week. It’s just high level, anonymous, where the management can login and see how they’re doing in terms of trends for these types of things.
So that’s just one of the examples, and, you know, we are trying to build innovation in the culture of that within the companies, if that’s what they want to do. We also want the teams to be engaged. We want management to have the data to make those decisions. Data that’s really useful, but not intrusive.
Kyle: Yeah, that sounds great. So what it all comes down to is who really can benefit from the Vocoli product?
Rich: Ideally, anyone can benefit from a tool that helps improve employee engagement, helps improve communication, helps great ideas within the organization flourish. But, realistically, in a small company with 50 employees if you have an idea, or you have an issue, or you have suggestion, or if you want to improve something, you can walk right into your CEO’s office. And if you can’t, I mean, a program like this isn’t going to work anyway.
But once you get a little big bigger, then it becomes harder and harder. Again, even with the best intentions. So, that head of the company, that founder becomes more removed the issues, the roadblocks that people on the front line run into.
So, you know, we’re generally targeting companies—er, I’m not even going to say companies—organizations, because it may be a nonprofit. It may be a government agency with 100 or more employees.
We’re also adapting our products. And this is really exciting, you know, we’re finding as we go along, maybe it isn’t just an employer/employee relationship. You know, we’re adapting our product to work maybe at association level. We’re actually about implement it with a union. The union staff can come up with suggestions, you know, and submit those ideas. They’re not an employee of that union, so, you know, we’re really excited by that. But, you know I think “who can use it?” Honestly, we think anybody can use it, but once you become a large organization that becomes probably more needed.
Kyle: Great, well, it sounds like you guys are off to a great start. Why don’t you tell the listeners where they can find out more information and check out your product?
Rich: You can visit us at Vocoli.com so that’s W W W dot V O C O L I dot com. You can also visit us on our Twitter @Vocoli.
Kyle: Well, it sounds good. Hey, Rich, thanks for joining us today our podcast and hopefully you can help our listeners and give them some great information and offer your product to them, help them improve.
Rich: Thanks Kyle. Appreciate the time. We’ll chat with you soon.
Kyle: Well, Brandon, we heard a lot of good stuff from Rich. What did you take from it, what do you think?
Brandon: You know what I really took from it was this type of application is really something that companies are going to want to implement as long as they really value what their employees have to say. If they don’t value what their employees up to say then they’re just going to continue whatever solution they have now, which is probably nothing but, for companies that are progressive and forward thinking they’re really going to want to employ this type of product. Because, you know, some of the best innovations come out of the people that are actually doing the labor on the floor. They’re the people that are really kind of the unsung heroes of the company. And when you get them involved in the process, and you get them excited about the process, and the changes that they implement, that really elevates a company and it elevates the workforce it really just does wonders for every organization that does this.
Kyle: Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear cut when you have a company that promotes engagement and you have employees that are willing to engage. There’s a big difference between those type of organizations and organizations that don’t. And I think what this product can do is really promote that engagement and innovation and take companies to levels that they never thought they could be.
Brandon: You know, and one of the things that I really like about this product is the fact that it’s basically accessible anywhere. You have the option of logging on to your phone, onto your computer at your desk and really just being involved anywhere. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at home and just thought “Oh, you know this is probably cool product enhancement that we can add to our LabelTac printers” or “This is a cool little thing that we can offer as a customer tip for a product to make it a better user experience.” And those little lightbulb moments, they’re kind of fleeting, and when you have the opportunity, wherever you are, to add those ideas into the bucket, that’s really, I think, an important tool.
Kyle: You’re right, Brandon. I can’t tell you how many ideas I’ve had on my couch that, you know, by the time you get to work the next morning, you completely forgot about what it was, or what you even thinking about.
Brandon: Well, I want to thank Kyle for conducting this interview with Richard Kneece over at Vocoli. And we’re going to wrap it up for today. We want to thank you for joining us on our podcast today. Once again, if you are interested in learning more about Vocoli, you can visit their website. It is www.Vocoli.com that is V O C O L I dot com. Thank you for listening.
Kyle: I’m Kyle Holland.
Brandon: I’m Brandon Nys
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