An Outsider’s Perspective on Why M&S’s BIG Idea Scheme is at Odds with 4 Key Principles for Sourcing Employee Ideas

Compared to other UK retailers, M&S is particularly active in giving their employees a voice within the business. That’s great! With over 80,000 employees widely dispersed in the UK and abroad, encouraging employees to share their ideas and insights is a great way for engaging employees and discovering management blind-spots on how to improve customer experience and operations.

In 2010, an internal employee survey found that staff wanted to get more involved in running the business. In collaboration with a network of elected employee representatives, the retailer created the BIG Idea scheme. Every quarter, the retailer asks a ‘BIG question’ and encourages their employees to submit relevant ideas and insights. In terms of employee participation, the scheme is rather successful; each quarterly question attracts approximately 2,000 ideas.

I was curious about how Marks & Spencer sources employee ideas and so I simply asked them via Twitter.

It turns out that their process is somewhat traditional.

While most companies use some sort of modern ideation platform, ideas at M&S are submitted through the line manager. This process may work well enough to attract a fair amount of employee ideas. However, it complicates ideation, is more resource-consuming, and fails to utilise the collective wisdom of the workforce through transparent discussions.

This stems from the violation of 4 key principles:

  1. Lack of Simplicity: Submitting ideas via the line manager is time-intensive, making it more difficult for employees to share ideas and more costly for the business to source ideas. Shop floor employees may have to go and fetch their line manager and wait with their idea until the line manager is available; the line manager will have to write down the idea and then pass it onto the next stage of the submission process.
    Ideation platforms, on the other hand, are designed to cut the effort for submitting an idea down to the very minimum. The ordinary shop floor employee submits her idea directly to the idea “bank”. They get out their phones/tablets, submit the idea and that’s it.
  2. Suboptimal timing: Timing is important as ideation is highly time-sensitive. People will come up with great ideas that they will have forgotten a few hours later. Giving people the opportunity to submit their ideas at whatever time they want, rather than when is best for their line manager, is therefore very important.
  3. Line managers as potential barriers: Line managers are catalysts in the ideation process and thus barriers as some employees will hesitate to submit ideas in a one-on-one context. Even though ideation platforms publicly associate the submitter’s name with her ideas, employees seem to be more comfortable with sharing their ideas on platforms.
    Interestingly, this is particularly the case with women. They tend to be the most active idea submitters on ideation platforms; even in companies that employ more men than women!
  4. Lack of Discussion: When employees submit their ideas to line managers, the idea is moving out of sight. Only employee representatives and others involved in the idea management process will be able to discuss ideas. However, the ability of a very wide range of employees to discuss each other’s ideas is an important boost for the quality of ideas. Many employees are highly interested in other’s ideas. They will read these ideas and, if they have any important insight to offer, they will comment on other’s ideas. From comments and the number of likes, the organisation can quickly identify those ideas that resonate most and least with other front-line employees. Giving M&S an insights into which ideas to think about most, this would significantly ease and accelerate M&S’s process of “filtering through these ideas first at a local store or office level and then at a regional and national level”.

How can M&S accommodate these 4 key principles?

Marks & Spencer has a strong Office 365 and also a strong Yammer. M&S’s Yammer network would therefore be an optimal platform for ideation:

  1. Simplicity: Employees already know Yammer, have Yammer and use Yammer. In order to submit ideas, they only have to get out their phones/tablets and that’s it.
  2. Timing: Employees can submit ideas at whatever time is best for them.
  3. No personal barrier: There is no line manager who may be a barrier. People love posting and discussing ideas on social platforms like Yammer.
  4. Open discussion: Employees will discuss ideas; administrators will therefore quickly notice which ideas have the most potential. Furthermore, some of the most important insights are found in these comments to ideas!

However, in order to efficiently use Yammer for ideation, back-end tools back-end tools such as Sideways 6 are necessary. These tools enable administrators to identify, extract, analyse and manage ideas posted in Yammer.

If you want to find out more about using Yammer for ideation, email

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