As we emerge from a global recession, C-suites are pushing to make innovation a priority across their organisations. Although the desire and focus on innovation may not be new, today's approach to innovation is in need of change.

Why? Because in the current era of social commerce, empowered customers are demanding innovation on their terms. Customers are relying less on corporate communications for information on products and services and are instead turning to their social network for advice and guidance on purchasing decisions.

And between social platforms like Twitter and YouTube, disgruntled customers have almost unlimited power to tell others why they should avoid purchasing your firm's products and services. This is part of the groundswell, which Forrester defines as a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than traditional institutions like corporations.

The demands of empowered customers are creating new challenges for businesses as they try to adapt to the groundswell. In many organisations, empowered employees are adopting innovative approaches to deal with their customers' needs.

In Forrester's latest book Empowered, analysts Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler describe these employees as highly resourceful and empowered operatives, or HEROes.

Best Buy's Twelpforce is one example of HEROes at work, solving everyday customer problems via Twitter. To develop the idea for Twelpforce, a network of employees – what Forrester calls an Innovation Network – came together, each with a unique role in the innovation process.

This particular case represents a new kind of Innovation Network, one tuned to enable HEROes. Best Buy's HEROes use a variety of social technologies and collaborative groups to innovate quickly and add value to their customer, creating a dynamic Innovation Network that we've termed a "Social Innovation Network." (see figure above).

This is defined as an innovation ecosystem that uses social technologies to enable HEROes to innovate and collaborate, furthering their firm's ability to meet its goals in response to empowered customers.

CIOs: Use the PACT Framework to Create Effective Social Innovation Networks
In order for CIOs to empower HEROes and innovation in their firms, they must design a structure and provide tools for effective Social Innovation Networks. Forrester recommends that this design follow a methodology called PACT, which stands for process, advocates, culture, and technology:

Process: Enable a Social Innovation Process with Social Technologies. In a traditional innovation model, ideas move through a funnel, managed by an innovation steering committee, from concept through incubation to commercialisation, measurement, and reward.

But Social Innovation Networks transform the old model into a social innovation process — with social technologies empowering participation from the entire organisation through the innovation funnel. For example, at Vistaprint, the innovation process spans multiple collaborative groups within the organisation, allowing ideas to be taken from concept to implementation, with multiple teams collaborating.

They also use a wiki and Intuit Brainstorm to support idea challenges to encourage employees from across the organisation to help solve a specific business challenge over a short, time bound period.

Advocates: Empower a Team of Social Innovation Advocates. Nurturing the Social Innovation Network should be the focus of a social innovation advocates team—all helping to sustain the innovation process over time. Starbucks, for example, has dedicated innovation staff in place to support innovation processes across the company.

At Johnson & Johnson, the dedicated innovation team helps other across the organisation innovate. A successful advocates team should include members from across the enterprise, combining skills like social community management, innovation process management, and technology support for social media. Both Starbucks and Johnson & Johnson have established these dedicated teams, which support the development of the Social Innovation Network by promoting the adoption of social tools, and by filtering innovation ideas to maintain relevant and fast-moving processes.

Culture: Inspire Social Innovation Network Participation Through a Culture of Innovation. The CIO has an important role to play in fostering a culture of empowered innovation across the enterprise. CIOs do this as a member of the C-Suite by encouraging all employees to innovate, and as CIO by enabling IT employees to step up as HEROes, or by using technology expertise to work alongside non-IT peers to solve business challenges and to create innovative solutions.

To embrace and encourage an atmosphere of experimentation, CIOs should aim to remove obstacles to innovation, embrace innovation failures as learning experiences, and define a policy that encourages social collaboration.

Technology: Lubricate Social Innovation Networks with Technology. One way IT can support Social Innovation Networks is through the deployment of multiple social technologies like ideation engines, blogs, discussion groups, and social network connectors.

CIOs should look to incorporate innovation technologies that fit into and enable the social innovation process. Ideal tools include idea management applications, systems that connect employees across different locations, and community discussion platforms.

While IT plays a significant role in nurturing the Social Innovation Network, it's important to recognise that they alone cannot implement these Networks across the organisation.

The PACT framework intentionally leads with developing the process for innovation and understanding how social technologies lubricate the wheels of innovation, but CIOs must socialise these concepts across the leadership team and connect innovation to business goals. Only then will Social Innovation Networks have the support needed to succeed.

Nigel Fenwick is VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, serving CIOs. His research focuses on the IT to BT transformation, business and technology strategy, social technology strategy, and technology trends and their impact on competitive advantage. He is also a regular blogger.