Turning Employees Into Champions

December 16, 1991|By Leslie Cauley

All Laird Wise wanted was an easier way to keep tabs on his messages.

Tired of having to pick up his phone to check for a stuttered dial tone -- the only indication that a message was waiting in his voice mailbox -- the Bell Atlantic Corp. engineer took matters into his own hands. He rigged up a box with a red light that would flash when a message was waiting, as hotel phones do when guests miss calls. The homemade box, no bigger than a pack of cigarettes, worked like a charm.

A lot has happened to Mr. Wise's garage invention since last fall.

Bell Atlantic has applied for a patent on the unit and christened it with a corporate name: Call Alert. By March, Bell Atlantic plans to start selling the Howard County resident's invention to people who buy Answer Call, the voice mailbox service sold by Bell Atlantic. The unit will retail for about $20.

Call Alert might never have made it off Mr. Wise's desktop without Bell Atlantic's "Champion" program, which is designed to turn employees' ideas into new products and services. Founded in 1988, the "intrapreneurship" program provides seed money, guidance and training to manager-level employees who make proposals that could generate profits for Bell Atlantic.

For participants, the program can bring financial rewards -- up to $297,000 over a five-year period.

And it's crucial for Bell Atlantic Corp., whose financial future hinges on the development and sale of new products and services. As revenues from basic phone services stagnate -- the result of slowed growth in the industry -- there will be increasing pressure from stockholders in all regional phone companies to seek new sources of income.

Raymond Smith, Bell Atlantic's chairman, sees the Champion program as a potential financial powerhouse. In a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review, he estimated revenues from Champion products would reach at least $100 million by 1995.

"There are potentially thousands of great, innovative ideas in a company our size," he said in the interview. "The Champion program encourages people to take responsibility for acting on them."

That view permeates Champion headquarters in Silver Spring, where the program's mission to identify projects that can bolster Bell Atlantic's bottom line has become an office mantra.

"We're trying to tap into the tremendous resources we know we have," says Patricia Koch, director of the program. "We know we have a lot of talent out there we're not in touch with because it's 'Not my job.' "

The Champion program is designed to break down a few of those barriers.

But the process is highly competitive -- and grueling.

Eligible employees can submit any idea for a new product or service, regardless of their current job. An eight-person review board convenes once a month at Champion headquarters to review proposals and pick out those with potential. In an average month, Mrs. Koch's office receives about a dozen ideas, and perhaps two will be approved for further examination.

Once a proposal has been approved, its author is typically given some "homework," usually on a tight deadline, to further test the conviction of employees to see their projects through. Employees may be asked, for example, to provide market forecasts or pertinent cost data for their projects. Homework is completed on the employees' own time.

If the proposal is accepted, the employee becomes a "Champion," and takes a four-day crash course in market analysis and entrepreneurial techniques. For the next 90 days, participants spend five hours of company time a week, and as much of their own time as necessary, to meet the next requirement: drafting a preliminary business plan.

Once that hurdle has been cleared, Champions are temporarily assigned to the Intrapreneurship Division in Silver Spring, typically for six months or less. During that time, the Champion must develop a full business case for the project and conduct marketing trials to document its commercial viability.

Champions have access to Bell Atlantic's vast resources, including technical experts, lawyers and senior managers. Each Champion is assigned a "coach," who offers advice, guidance and supportalong the way. Coaches, plucked from the ranks of senior management, provide a liaison between the corporate structure and the program.

Providing all goes well, Champions can leave their existing jobs to become full-time project managers or return to their old jobs.

Champions also have the option of reaping some financial rewards from their efforts, a distinguishing characteristic of the Bell Atlantic program. Champions may forfeit 10 percent of their base salary and any year-end performance bonus in return for a chance to share in the earnings -- up to $297,000 over five years -- that their product or service generates.

Bell Atlantic won't divulge the operating budget of the Champion program, which is funded by its regulated phone companies. Mrs. Koch says only that revenues currently exceed expenses.

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