The launch of an influenza forecast service using AI Garnering high expectations for application to COVID-19
An idea contest gives shape to employees’ passion – Hitachi to provide 1 million dollars to fund businesses affected by COVID-19
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In April 2020, amid a continuing COVID-19 pandemic, Hitachi held its in-house idea contest “Make a Difference! Challenge to COVID-19”. Once inviting employees to suggest ways in which Hitachi can fight the spread of COVID-19 infection, in less than two weeks, 1,430 ideas were submitted from Hitachi Group employees around the world.
One of the popular ideas was to support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) through crowdfunding and donations. To turn this suggestion into reality, Hitachi decided to distribute 1 million dollars through the crowdfunding platform “Kiva”, to fund SMEs around the world impacted by COVID-19.
Other than this, various ideas related to creation of new business and workstyle reform are now under consideration. We asked Ms. Lyn Amor Doble, who planned the contest, about what went on behind the scenes of this event.
Giving rise to innovation with freewheeling thinking
--What is the “Make a Difference!” idea contest and its purpose?
Doble: "Make a Difference" is an in-house idea contest that we’ve held since 2015. We invite employees to offer ideas for new services or improvements to the work environment at Hitachi. For particularly unique ideas, Hitachi executives serve as advisors, and by refining these ideas with the proposers, we consider developing related technology and bringing the proposed products or services to market.
--Please tell us how this initiative began.
Doble: Five years before the contest was launched, Hitachi executives had a sense of crisis regarding the training of young employees. To accelerate innovation across the group as a whole, they felt that Hitachi needs people who not only can faithfully follow instructions from their supervisors but also proactively innovate and take action to improve their own working environments. For this reason, the contest was launched as an initiative to boost positivity and autonomy among employees.
--What are some of the ideas that have been selected as winners in the past?
Doble: We’ve received various ideas that cut across Hitachi's fields of business, including education, entertainment, healthcare, etc. For instance, the “Infectious Disease Forecasting Service”, which was selected as a finalist in 2017, uses Hitachi’s AI to analyze data of the number of people infected with influenza collected by medical institutions. It then forecasts the risk of epidemics in each region up to four weeks in advance. After the contest, Hitachi’s R&D Group proceeded with preparations for commercialization of this service, and Proof of Concept was conducted in Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture, in 2019.
The “Infectious Disease Forecasting Service” was born from a personal concern of a Hitachi researcher, who is father to three children. Likewise, many ideas first start off with employees’ innocent question, “What would our lives be like if such technology or service existed?” I believe that this degree of freedom, which is unique to an idea contest, has a potential for accelerating innovation inside the company.
Thinking about how Hitachi can help the society “right now”
--This latest contest was held rather urgently, to gather ideas for countermeasures against the spread of COVID-19 infection. What was the background to this?
Doble: Originally, we were seeking new business ideas and ways to improve our business in-house, much like the idea contest has done in the past years. However, when the team presented President and CEO Higashihara about the project, he suggested, "Could we focus on ideas that address how Hitachi Group employees can work as one to help the society fight the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how we can improve the way we work?" So, we decided to change the overall direction, moving along much faster and shortening the application period. I think this project really reflects the strong will and leadership of President Higashihara and his top priority: “What can Hitachi do right now, for the society?”
--What was the reason why Hitachi decided to offer funding through the “Kiva” crowdfunding platform?
Doble: We received a lot of entries seeking to help businesses affected by the pandemic through crowdfunding, and Kiva helped us realize that idea. Kiva is a non-profit organization based in the United States that is committed to easing poverty through personal loans. It has developed a crowdfunding platform that supports SMEs, entrepreneurs, and farmers in underserved communities. Hitachi has many years of experience in providing funding through Kiva, so we were able to make good use of our existing channels.
On the Kiva website, Hitachi Group employees can choose to offer a grant of $25 from the Hitachi fund by selecting the business that they personally want to support. However, the key point is that not only employees but also people outside the company can take part in this. When people outside the company use Kiva to provide grants to eligible businesses, Hitachi will provide an additional grant of the same amount of fund sent by the user. By lowering the barriers to providing funds in this way, we wanted many people to feel that they could help others through their own initiative and contribute to society.
--Apparently, you received many other ideas aside from crowdfunding. What kinds of ideas were there?
Doble: At present, we are considering realizing some of the popular ideas submitted to the contest. For example, as an idea that answer the needs of “New Normal” in the mobility aspect of our lives, Building Systems Business Unit at Hitachi, Ltd. is now developing solutions that uses latest technology such as video analytics to accelerate the adoption of “touchless” buildings and living space. We have also received ideas related to new workstyles of Post-COVID-19. New initiatives such as abolishing the use of physical stamps, going paperless, and improving IT environment is already beginning to be implemented to the workplace.
Furthermore, we have received many suggestions related to CSR activities, particularly providing support of children’s education during this time of crisis. One of the actions that were realized is Hitachi High-Tech’s STEM education outreach program that uses a tabletop scanning electron microscope which can be controlled remotely. In Japan, an online session of the program was opened to employees’ families, providing an exciting, hands-on learning experience to children who are spending time at home. The company has done similar initiatives in the United States. These education programs will be further enhanced to support the spread of remote education in the Post-COVID-19 society.
The key to the contest’s big success
--There were 1,430 applications in this contest—why was there such a strong reaction from the employees?
Doble: We received a lot of applications immediately after the start of the contest. It’s very clear that, in their daily lives, many employees want to be of benefit to society and want to solve social issues. Hitachi’s corporate mission “Contribute to society through the development of superior, original technology and products” has been passed down from the founder for the last 110 years, and in response to this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of employees are raising their hands to help, constantly wondering, "Is there anything I can do?"
On the other hand, there was also some effort on the management side. For this contest, we invited applications from overseas more actively than in the past. Also, in consideration of differences in language and culture, we made a preliminary selection in each region and narrowed down to the best ideas. I think by working with a global team structure in this way, we were successful in gathering ideas from diverse perspectives.
--Will you continue to develop human resources through idea contests in the future?
Doble: This idea contest is just one of several initiatives to encourage employee independence and creativity. My team is currently working on a revision of the “competencies” that set the standard for employee goals. We are redefining the mindset we need in order to become a global leader in innovation, while continuing to build on the founding spirit of Hitachi and its commitment to wa (harmony), makoto (sincerity), and kaitakusha-seishin (pioneering spirit).
In situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where the road ahead is unclear, it is crucial that we show initiative and be proactive in addressing social issues and potential needs, rather than waiting for requests from our customers. I look forward to continuing to plan the idea contest and other initiatives so as to encourage creativity among employees.