Employee engagement. It's a people thing and clearly a proposition many companies have difficulty with, if a recent Gallup poll tells an accurate tale. According to the organization's data, a mere 32% of U.S. employees were engaged in 2015, a percentage that has remained fairly static since 2000.

It matters. Gallup says its extensive research shows that engagement is strongly connected to business outcomes like productivity and profitability. Data collected from the IndustryWeek Best Plants suggest the same.

The polling organization also suggested companies approach employee engagement as an "ongoing human capital strategy," factoring in elements from leadership accountability and manager education to employee development opportunities.

What it doesn't mention is technology. Can it play a role?

Few would posit that technology is going to create an engaged workforce. Perhaps not, but it can assist, as the following examples show. Manufacturers like Polaris and Autoliv recognize that engaging the minds and talents of their employees is a powerful path to success. Technology provides a tool to help smooth that path. 

Polaris Industries' Innovation Culture

Have you seen the Polaris Slingshot? If you have, surely you did a double take because the three-wheeled motorcycle – which from the front appears to be a car -- stands out in a crowd.  The dramatic roadster, introduced in mid-2014, looks like something a superhero would pilot, and no wonder: It's specifically designed to "deliver head-turning exhilaration," a company vice president said at the time of the Slingshot's initial announcement.

Early results in the marketplace look good for the new product.  In comments about its 2015 annual results, Medina, Minn.-based Polaris Industries reported that sales of the Slingshot significantly exceeded expectations in its first full year on the market – and in what was admittedly a difficult year for the powersports manufacturer.

The Slingshot is a result of a well-nurtured company culture of innovation. Not only does Polaris Industries' believe everyone and anyone of its employees can contribute to imagining its next breakthrough innovation, but also it actively encourages that effort. 

"We always want our employees to be thinking of the next big thing," says Joseph Laurin, a 27-year Polaris veteran and manager of Visioneering, Polaris' name for employee innovation. "Everyone has a specific skill set. It could be knowledge, it could be experience, it could be hands-on. Basically, as people come in the door, we encourage them to get involved in those ideas, and concepts and developing things."

That's how the Slingshot got its start, bubbling up via the Visioneering process. "Our employees are customers too, so [they] have good perspectives on the market future," Laurin notes.

Polaris also spurs idea generation with periodic innovation challenges, including its biggest, the annual invention day contest. The Sportsman Ace off-road vehicle is the biggest idea to emerge from this challenge; others include the Ranger EV (electric vehicle) as well as a low-inertia crankshaft used in several of Polaris' Axys snowmobiles.

Anyone can submit ideas, from the president to a production line employee.

So where is the technology assist in all of this? While the company's employee innovation effort is clearly people-inspired, an innovation management software solution provides the means for Polaris to manage the process. The company introduced Spigit in 2010 to automate what largely had been a manual process until then. Visioneering got its start in 2004.

We always want our employees to be thinking of the next big thing."

— Joseph Laurin, manager of Visioneering at Polaris Industries

Fundamentally, Spigit is about crowdsourcing, or capturing ideas from large groups of people—the internal workforce, in the case of Polaris. "Nobody is smarter than all of your employees put together," notes Spigit chief marketing office Amy Millard. Another user of the technology, Unilever, employs it to engage with consumers and entrepreneurs to crowdsource solutions to sustainability issues. 

The solution does more than simply capture data, however. It sorts the data rapidly using algorithms, and invites the "crowd" in to vote ideas up or down, and comment and view trends. Experts, too, may get involved to determine the viability of the idea. Ultimately the best ideas graduate to the top of the funnel, explains Laurin.

On a related note, the Visioneering manager pointed out the importance of providing closure on ideas—and Spigit helps there as well. "People will continue to be very cooperative as long as there is closure. Sometimes people have ideas on things we've already done, but they don’t realize it – a 'Hey, Bob, you had a great idea on this ATV tire. It's either in development or we tried that three years ago and we had issues.' We always try to bring closure to everything so people understand and don’t think their ideas are in vain or going nowhere," Laurin says.

The Spigit software has proven popular within Polaris. While it was initially purchased and used solely by the Visioneering group for innovation, other parts of the organization have requested and used it to issue challenges and crowdsource employee-generated improvement ideas. Examples include companywide challenges for cost-reduction ideas that generated significant response. Also, the information system team and safety teams have issued challenges via Spigit, and it has been used as well to improve Polaris clothing and generate new accessory ideas.

Moreover, Laurin adds, "as Polaris grows, [the challenges] help get all the sites engaged."

All that said, Spigit's Millard also noted the software's limitations. "We can't provide a culture that cares about innovation and improvement," she says. "If you don't believe that employees can help you, then no technology" is going to make that happen.