HR and Innovation, strange bedfellows?

    Michel van Hove

    What spurs innovation?

    Well, a vital ingredient is diversity of input. And what creates diversity, people right? But just putting a diverse group of people together doesn’t automatically generate brilliant ideas and opportunities. Just putting innovation on the agenda to signal its importance is not enough to get great results. Simply training people in innovation techniques doesn’t magically make innovation happen.

    We are used to clients who approach us to help them generate breakthrough strategies and identify opportunities for growth. Many clients these days realise that to make innovation stick it needs more than great ideas and a stage gate process and we help them embed sustainable innovation that lasts and a capability that enables them to innovate far into the future. Some of these engagements have been well documented in books, case stories and articles, e.g. Whirlpool, Korea Telecom and EDP in Brazil.

    In these more transformational engagements HR often plays a crucial role and it helps us consultants to be more sensitive around company (and sometimes country) cultural issues, performance metrics and how to best develop their employees. Employee engagement is built into innovation programs in the shape of running company wide innovation challenges, offering employees a chance to participate in the innovation process. Provided this is setup in the right way, i.e. not as a glorified idea box it will work (we will soon post another blog about this topic) and help embed innovation into the organisation, improve employee engagement and generate a large number of quality ideas.

    Leading the change.

    What we have recently seen is that increasingly HR isn’t just a participant but actually leading the innovation effort, our first point of contact. CEO’s that realise innovation performance requires innovation culture and in many occasions turn to the HR function for answers. Conversations with HR professionals tend to start around training and development of employees and leadership teams as part of their existing development programs. This is fine as a starting point but the discussion should quickly open up to include different approaches than the ones HR is used to providing to the business.

    An integral part of our transformational innovation engagements with clients is our focus on capability development through training and leadership development. Treating these as standalone projects in our opinion generates awareness at best but doesn’t deliver lasting change. For an organisation to change to a culture of innovation requires changing peoples’ behavior by changing the way they work. Giving them the approaches, tools and real business challenges facilitates this.

    We believe that training and development are valuable activities but only when they can immediately be applied on the job, i.e. through participating in different types of innovation challenges. Employees will be more engaged and motivated if there is a real purpose to what they are doing, it will make the innovation meaningful. Giving them the tools and techniques helps people to adopt a different way of thinking and a structure to achieve their goals. In the long run this will affect lasting change and a core capability around innovation.

    How HR can deliver innovation?

    While training sessions can be delivered in short bursts, innovation challenges are much longer projects. A good example is the program with Syngenta’s executives that is now into its 3rd cycle. This program allows multinational teams (diversity of input) to work on real business challenges (purpose) and use innovation tools and techniques (changing the way they innovate) within a defined innovation framework and process (structure) This supports their development and delivers real business results. Training is given throughout the program and there are regular remote and face-to-face facilitation sessions to check results and steer the teams.

    While HR has been able to gain experience in most other business disciplines (e.g. marketing, finance, operations etc.) over the years innovation is still a relatively uncharted area on their radar. We do think this “coming together” of different parts of the organisation to support the innovation initiative is a really good thing and will help to ” make innovation stick” in the long run. So if you’re in HR and think innovation could help your company then start the conversation, take the initiative.