Bob Anderson: Innovating from the bottom up at Best Buy

In the opening moments of Bob Anderson's presentation to like-minded college students, the IT executive uses the words "innovation" or "innovative" or "innovate" seven times. He has reasons to harp on that theme. Now chief technologist for Best Buy Co., Inc., the nation's largest consumer electronics outlet, Anderson defines innovative thinking as creative, inventive, radical and fearless.

And when you're a retailer of products sold by everyone from Sears to Circuit City, coming up with new and better ways to service customers is crucial to survival, he said. Anderson consciously cultivates an innovation-friendly work environment. For instance, if an employee greets him in the hall with "I have an idea," he stops — right then, even if he's on his way to a meeting — and listens.

"You don't need a big, honking server and lots of funding or 50 people to start something innovative. It can be just two guys or two women with just an idea. Nothing makes me happier than when someone says, 'Hey, Bob, I have an idea.' I never say, 'Send me an email.' I say, 'What have you got?'" Anderson was a featured speaker at the Spark 2008 IT Invitational sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Business through Information Technology.

"Innovation seldom comes from the executives in a company. An executive did not come up with Twitter. Or Facebook. Those ideas come from you," he said, addressing students in the audience, "the young people, our employees. My company is 40 years old, and the average age of our more than 140,000 employees is your age.

That's how companies like Best Buy innovate," he explained. More than 2,000 W. P. Carey School of Business students attended the day-long conference. More than 50 chief information officers, many of them nationally recognized leaders in the field, met and mingled with students interested in IT careers.

Using IT to please customers

Best Buy has a solid reputation for using IT to come up with new ways to please customers. For instance, since 2002 Anderson has helped expand a canny service specializing in home computer set-up and repair. Called the "Geek Squad," it's grown into a 17,000-strong specialty staff that delivers technical and technological services to customers.

A call to the Geek Squad's toll-free number dispatches one of its black-and-white Volkswagen bugs to your door. Today a Geek Squad agent is available to set up an iPod or MP3 player; calibrate a home theatre system; network a family's desktops and laptops or install a global positioning system in your car.

Besides Geek Squad, the company has other brands and partnerships such as Audiovisions, The Carphone Warehouse, Future Shop, Pacific Sales Kitchen and Bath Centers and Speakeasy. Some they invent, others they buy and expand. This fall, Best Buy bought Napster in an all-cash deal. Revenue last year totaled more than $40 billion for the Richfield, Minnesota, company.

Anderson is always on the lookout for his next ingenious moneymaker. Example: he decided to build a lab "to create the best IT tools" for Best Buy's consumers. Instead of hiring new people or drafting existing employees, he just began talking about his idea. "I said, 'Who wants to come and help make the coolest tools that we use for our customers?' And six people came" on board who were terrifically suited to the challenge, he said.

BlueShirt Nation

In 2006, two advertising employees took him aside to describe their latest gestalt: a social networking system for Best Buy employees. "I said, 'You want to build MySpace?' But they had a great idea, a way for our 140,000 employees to talk to each other, to teach each other, and to co-create. What emerged from that is BlueShirt Nation," Anderson said, named after the uniform tops employees wear.

In technical terms, BlueShirt Nation is an internal communications platform set up by IT. Employees from across the company use it to talk about how the company runs, how its products work — anything and everything about what is important to them professionally. Thousands of employees participate, and there are few rules, in terms of censorship. In two years, only three posts have required removal.

"It got some groundswell. We have this underground tunnel, and someone painted a robot guy on it, and then BlueShirt Nation was viral. People really want to make their company better. Now, our CEO, our COO and I are out there every day, looking at what our people are saying," he continued. More than 20,000 employees joined within the first year.

He uses BlueShirt Nation as an example of the kind of shoe-string collaboration that allows companies to investigate a variety of ideas and projects without committing a significant investment of time, expertise and money in each. "I didn't say 'I need two project managers and a programmer' just to look into it. That is old school," Anderson added.

Leverage IT

He thinks the most progressive companies understand that leveraging IT is one of the most fruitful ways to improve the bottom line. Young employees are walking, talking idea factories, and the most creative among them can land their ideal job by emphasizing their innovative mindset during the interview process.

Having a certificate in database process and structure or object-oriented systems design is great. As Anderson put it, "These are good skills to have. But that's not what companies want. They want people who are exciting and innovative." A skill worth cultivating is how to articulate a wispy idea into an actual process, he added. Start by succinctly defining the problem that the new idea is aimed at solving. "Don't tell me how the wheels spin. I assume you know what you are talking about," he adds.

Then take it to an IT manager who can help you translate the technological issues into a business model, he suggests. Understand that the best ideas, the ones that become reality, at some point will be assigned to a more formal process, requiring things like senior management buy-in, a budget, feasibility studies and regulatory compliance. Hang in there, though, and you could create the next BlueShirt Nation.