Driving Innovation at the Workplace

Date:   Thursday , December 01, 2011

In today’s dynamic marketplace, Innovation is an essential mantra to enhance business competitiveness and sustainability. A developing business environment that supports innovation can not only contribute to employment creation but also to overall economic growth. Also, promoting multiple and varied forms of workplace innovation is critical because organizations today operate in challenging environments, prompting the need for increased flexibility and knowledge-based work.

I believe creativity also plays a pivotal function in the innovation process and can help establish the company as a harbinger of performance and positive change. In order to guarantee sustainable business success, companies today need to look at the bigger picture by giving serious consideration to nurturing human creativity, investing more in human resource development and involving employees in strategic business development initiatives.

Organizational Innovation Need for Innovation: From a management and organizational perspective, the concept of workplace innovation can encompass a wide range of approaches. Various types of teamwork, employee empowerment schemes, continuous skill development and learning plans, flexible work organization arrangements and transparent communication practices can improve working conditions to achieve greater competitiveness and business sustainability. However, innovations often demands major and far-reaching changes in the underlying organizational philosophy. Even making the decision to adapt a particular form of organization can be the starting point of a transition process, which takes time. Definition of innovation: Teams often make the mistake of carrying a narrow definition of ‘innovation’. They tend to think in terms of patents or in terms of the “next $5 million product idea”. This results in teams getting disillusioned about the time and resources required and their inability to contribute to innovation. In order to build a culture of innovation it is good to define innovation as anything that provides additional value to the customer or to the company’s business. It is good to take baby steps and encourage small innovative ideas and initiatives. As the fever of innovation catches on over time, you will see that the teams are able to innovate more proficiently.

Commitment to the Cause: Another essential ingredient is belief in the process of innovation and an unambiguous commitment to work towards it. There needs to be a genuine willingness to sustain the effort. While outside encouragement may help, a genuine internal conviction is needed, both on an individual as well as from an organizational level. Support from all management levels is indispensable in helping to bring about successful organizational changes. While innovation is often treated as the last dessert in a seven-course meal, it is important for companies and teams to understand that today’s innovation is tomorrow’s “bread & butter”. Only when this is well understood, will you find that it is given the due priority and the required importance in everyone’s objectives. Only then can it move from a phase of ‘Good to have’ to a ‘Must have’.

Need for Involvement: Changes in the workplace affect the core of the organization and should involve all stakeholders from the beginning of the process. It is important to give employees a direct and participative role. Full information and consultation, as well as open communication can be paramount here. Whether the workplace change is instigated from the top-down, or from the bottom-up, a good social dialogue and agreement on the strategic direction to be followed is essential. A range of different indicators needs to be collected in order to address the concerns of various groups, including top management, line management, employees and other stakeholders. It is also important that this information is appropriately presented, to each group in order to convince them that the change is in their interest.

Monitoring the Process
It is important that the process and results of workplace innovation are continuously monitored. Although it can be difficult to provide measurable evidence of the advantages of new work systems implemented by merely measuring financial results, it is possible to follow up on certain parameters to evaluate the progress made. Such measurements may be based on statistical indicators such as productivity and employee turnover, or on employee satisfaction over a period. Innovation and employee benefit

Innovation includes product innovations, service innovations, and organizational (procedural or process) innovations, market-led or market-push innovation and technology-led innovations (for which markets must be developed). The classification is based on the degree of their impact, viz., incremental, radical, or systemic. It is not very easy for employees to come up with new ideas during a stretched schedule and under heavy work pressure, when resources are limited and work takes a lot of time. Therefore, it is important to encourage employees to take some time out from their daily routine towards idea generation.

Innovation promotes employee growth: not every idea may be worth taking forward. Many a time ideas which have technology insights and bring value to an existing product or enhances its features, are not implemented simply because of a lack of business viability. However, it is important that the culture of innovation is imbibed and inculcated among employees to help organizations grow bigger and better. Encouraging innovation also helps employees in their personal growth and gives them a sense of achievement. The power to think differently provides a learning opportunity to employees who can use that knowledge and capacity to grow faster within an organization. On their part organizations benefit from the availability of new business ideas and a very satisfied set of employees.

Innovation breaks monotony: Employees who work on one project for a very long time often complain of monotony. They would want to be part of or contribute to other projects. Encouraging employees to involve themselves in projects other than theirs, gives them an opportunity to highlight their skills. This adds to employee sense of fulfillment and achievement and provides the team working on the project with ideas that are new and out-of-the box, furthering the benefit of implementation.

In order to promote innovation, organizations can actually set-up groups, often referred to as ‘Innovation Councils’ and that play a catalytic role in ideation, idea validation, fortification and concept demonstration. This team works with the team leads of each business unit to explore how to adapt the idea to for practical business. These groups are often led by technical experts to provide assistance on implementation. The council further helps the teams bring in new ideas right up to a demonstrable stage, and then present it to the management.

Proof of Concept (Demo): A new idea that is merely on paper or in the form of a presentation does not gather much conviction and confidence for business purposes. Such ideas fade away after a few discussions and presentations. A new idea gains more confidence and interest when brought to a demonstrable stage. The team should be able to take an idea forward to some extent before it can gain the attention of the management and expect them to back the idea with investment of resources. Rewarding innovation: While it is true that employees should be able to demonstrate the usefulness of an idea to the company’s business, it is also important for the organization to also encourages teams to come up with ideas consistently, identify the best ones and to reward them. This in turn generates goodwill and encourages employees to think and lead innovation. This also prompts employees to spend extra hours to discuss and generate new ideas.

Conclusion

There is no simple universal formula for successful innovation: it is nonlinear and works at many levels. It is important for every company to imbibe the culture of innovation as a fundamental part of growth. Innovation is uniquely human and cannot be done by machines. Innovations are not random; they occur in relation to the past, present, and future conditions of an organization. Companies that understand this basic truth stand to gain in the long term. In conclusion, Innovation should be at the heart of every initiative by a company and should be hierarchy agnostic. In other words, it needs to be adopted as a ‘way of life’ among all stakeholders in a company, in order to ensure the company’s success and growth in a rapidly evolving marketplace.