Greg Hicks, Director IT, Social and Collaborative Innovation, UnitedHealth Group

SuperNova Award Category

  • Future of Work
  • Technology Optimization & Innovation

The Company 

UnitedHealth Group (UHG) is the parent of UnitedHealthcare, the nation’s largest health and well-being company. UnitedHealth, ranked 22nd in the Fortune 500, operates through two distinct platforms: UnitedHealthcare, which provides health care coverage and benefits services; and Optum, which provides information and technology-enabled health services. UnitedHealth operates these two business platforms across eight markets: integrated care delivery, care management, consumer engagement and support, distribution of benefits and services, health financial services, operational services and support, health care information technology and pharmacy. Through these two business platforms, UnitedHealth Group serves more than 85 million people worldwide.

The Problem 

UnitedHealth Group has historically grown through fundamental execution, sustaining innovation around its core solutions, and by acquisition of new innovations and capabilities.  When a company with 137,000 employees and more than $100 billion in annual revenue wants to foster a culture of innovation and begin generating its own innovative solutions organically, how does it engage all of its employees across the U.S. and abroad?

The Solution

Traditional methods of promoting innovation concepts through layers of management were taking too much time and effort, delaying the creation of new, organically created solutions that could meet today’s market demands. A new process, coupled with enabling technology, was necessary to flatten the innovation environment, allowing people with ideas to engage more directly with leadership and access funding. UnitedHealth Group launched a social and collaborative innovation program in 2011. Utilizing Spigit Engage as the underlying technology and combining complimentary offline activities, this program enabled leaders, including CEO Stephen Hemsley, to engage employees across the enterprise in solving some of health care's greatest challenges.

The Results 

In 2013, UnitedHealth Group launched the 3rd annual Hemsley Challenge. More than 8,500 employees cast 386,000 votes, helping to narrow 680 employee-generated ideas down to the “Hemsley 16,” a group of innovative concepts slatted to be featured at UnitedHealth Group’s annual Innovation Day. Teams were built around each concept and team members were provided with special training and tools via a two-day “human-centered design” boot camp, inspired by Stanford’s Institute of Design. The innovation teams rapidly created prototypes of their concepts in preparation for a tradeshow style display at Innovation Day.  The teams also prepared and delivered a two-minute “power-pitch” before a live in-person and video simulcast audience that included top leaders across UnitedHealth Group. In total, more than 19,000 employees engaged in the Hemsley Challenge by ideating, commenting, voting, and collaborating.  This engagement process was radically different from the way employees were enabled to engage in the innovation process prior to 2011. Previously, single idea owners had to navigate a system of managers and leaders, trying to get their concepts connected with decision makers. With the 3rd annual Hemsley Challenge, employees created, developed, and ultimately selected the ideas to be considered for funding and future development.

The Technology

UnitedHealth Group utilizes Spigit Engage to capture ideas, facilitate collaboration, and crowd-source evaluations through expert reviews and Pairwise voting. These tools support a program that uses technology to engage and guide employees, while also leveraging offline tools and strategies to develop and evolve concepts and encourage deep collaboration.

Metrics Matter

UnitedHealth Group in recent years added “innovation” to its set of core cultural values. Utilizing a social and collaborative innovation program, along with a number of other innovation strategies, UnitedHealth Group has seen employee engagement scores, and the perception of UnitedHealth Group as an innovative company, increase as measured by annual employee surveys. In addition, three employee-generated concepts identified by the prior year’s 2012 Hemsley challenge are currently being developed as projects. In total, those three concepts have the potential to eliminate $30 million in annual operating costs and, more importantly, radically improve the health care experience for millions of consumers and thousands of health care providers.

Disruptive Factor

With 137,000 employees, communicating the idea that anybody can be a part of innovation is harder than delivering on that promise. Leveraging technology to capture ideas and create diverse teams around those concepts has enabled UnitedHealth Group to radically transform innovation engagement. Traditional methods of generating and promoting ideas still exist, so this new approach has become just another tool for creating innovations with the potential to change the face of health care.

Shining Moment

In 2012, 41 experts invested 584 hours to review more than 1,400 ideas submitted to the Hemsley Challenge.  In 2013, the program intentionally used strategies to decrease the total idea volume while also increasing overall submission quality. The program also leveraged Pairwise voting to enable all employees to engage in the selection process. This strategy increased overall engagement by 40 percent compared to the previous year and eliminated the large investment of time and energy that had previously fallen on a small team of reviewers.