What can an HRD Manager do to enhance an organization’s innovation capability?

By Michele Cordano – Student in Human Resources Management, Lancaster University 

What can HRD Managers do to enhance an organisation’s innovation capabilities? Why innovation should be pursued and what are the three main areas that can affect innovation capabilities?

The focus is on how managers should approach innovation and why managers should pursue Radical Innovation rather than Incremental Innovation. There are some specific managerial activities that can affect innovation, starting with recruiting and training talent to provide a new approach to creative thinking.

The Nature of Innovation

The nature of innovation has been an increasingly explored topic of discussion in the last decades because of the remarkable effects that it has on organisations’ viability.  In today’s increasingly globalised world innovation plays a fundamental role in shaping markets and technology and in reacting to competition.  When discussing innovation, it is pivotal to define it as the introduction of not only new products and services, but also new organisational designs, management/marketing strategies and production processes.  Because innovation can be identified as a key mean of achieving corporate goals, it has been increasingly sought after by organisations and managers.  Firms with a stagnant innovation process are at risk of falling behind the market trend and their competitors.

To better understand how managerial work can impact innovation, the main factors affecting the creative production of new ideas and products will be defined into three main investments areas: people, structures and instruments.  To ensure innovation, organisations need people with the right knowledge and innovation capabilities, the capital to grant the possibility to use their talents and a supporting cultural and physical structure in which they can flourish.

It could be argued that HRD managers can follow a series of good practices to ensure that they have the right talented individuals and to turn their knowledge into creative ideas.  Creativity and innovation are two diverse concepts yet often running in parallel as creativity is “the starting point of innovation”.  Hence, managers can stimulate creativity to develop both product and process innovation.  In order to be innovative, organisations need a creative workforce and an environment that facilitates its creativity process.

How Managers Should Approach Innovation

It is fundamental to clarify the distinction between Incremental Innovation (I.I.) and Radical Innovation (R.I.).

Incremental Innovation

is the safest form of innovation as it draws upon the development of solutions through the traditional approach of slight betterment of previous designs and ideas that often do not lead to a major advantage over competitors.

Radical Innovation

attempts to make changes to the entire fundamental concept behind a product in order to provide significant changes.  Because of its often-drastic nature, R.I. has often been considered “risky”, perhaps justifying the tendency of some managers and organisations to maintain their focus on the cheaper and safer I.I. Furthermore, because of its nature, R.I. requires an higher degree of patience from managers who should not expect immediate tangible results: for example a lot of money and time has been invested on self-driving technology, an innovation that could revolutionise the world of transport, but which until now has not brought major profit to the companies that decided to invest on it.

Contrary to popular belief, innovation is hardly something that can be achieved through an “eureka moment” in the mind of a creative genius.  The complexity and sophistication of products and services require the collaboration and combination of different specialists skills, making creative work an increasingly collective process. An individual’s creative idea won’t be enough to permit R.I. if the design and production teams are not able to collaborate and come up with complementary solutions.  Creativity and innovation should be seen as constructs of social interactions and in order to succeed managers need to develop interactive approaches to creativity.

People and Innovation

Whilst as previously discussed innovation is hardly a result of individual effort, the innovative talent of individuals is still considered to play a fundamental role in determining the innovation capabilities of a company.

Without the right talent enterprises cannot be successful.  Whilst HRD managers generally focus on already employedindividuals, to maximise R.I. efforts those managers could play an important role in recruitment and selection processes of potentialemployees as well. It is vital for organisational innovation to recruit and retain individuals possessing the so called “static” creativity: an innate tendency to have creative ideas.  Investment in talented human capital should be a major concern for managers and businesses that are trying to innovate effectively. \HRD Managers should therefore be involved in the recruitment process with an additional focus on employer branding in order to attract and retain talent.

Having discussed the importance of selecting talented individuals, a second pivotal step to maximise their creative output can be recognised in training activity.  Employees owning the knowledge and experience to innovate are a few and often require a substantial investment to be snatched from the competition. As a cheaper alternative, organisation can build their innovation capacity by cultivating talented individuals, providing them effective training and enabling them to share their knowledge with others.  Whilst organisational learning could enhance the innovation potential of a company, training methods that could enhance individuals’ creativity are still a matter of discussion.  In order to achieve R.I. managers could pursue what March defined as “explorative learning”, characterised by the assimilations of knowledge that differs intensely from previously existing insights, and useful to bring a new perspective into the creative process.

A New Perspective

The reason why Explorative Learning could be considered a key enabler of R.I. is the importance of bringing a new, fresh perspective in the organisational creative process.  HRD Managers should pursue diversity in highly creative teams to increase their innovation capabilities. One potential cause of creative stagnation, especially in well-established and highly structured corporations, is the presence of extremely resilient paradigms.  A rigid creative process that rarely questions pre-established models is more likely to produce I.I. rather than R.I.. HRD Managers must challenge those paradigms and embrace diversity, knowing that inspiration can come from diverse people and situations: a manufacturing worker or a customer could suggest creative solutions based on their experience that R&D employees would not have considered.

R.I. however is not only achievable through the introduction of new individuals. Using Explorative Learning to shift an already established team can give its members the impulse to develop innovative ideas. Managers can thus focus on having a diverse team not only in terms of knowledge and expertise but also in terms of cultural background and creative approach.

Structures and Innovation

An Innovation-Enabling Structure (I.E.S.) encompasses not only a physical space, but also a social/cultural, cognitive, emotional, epistemological and virtual space.  Unique I.E.S.s are needed to enable R.I., whilst more traditional arrangements often support incremental development of previously existing solutions.  Highly structured, well-established companies may often struggle to implement an I.E.S., hence many corporations prefer to purchase creative and flexible start-ups as source of significant innovation. A potential solution for organisations to deal with the conflict between mainstream operating units and the need for I.E.S.s is the creation of “innovation hubs”: dynamic sub-structures in which R.I. can be achieved.  These hubs can work as pockets of knowledge with their very own cultures and spaces in which a network of individuals can share information to produce creative solutions.

A structural aspect closely related to the “fresh perspective” needed by organisations in order to be innovative is the introduction of play in the work-life of creative employees.  By removing some organisational constraints and promoting a more informal sharing of knowledge, playful work could have an important role in encouraging innovation. Knowing that a playful approach can have effects on creativity, managers must provide space and time frameworks for employees to play and express themselves, and in some cases even to work on side projects of their choice.

Motivation, creativity and innovation are highly affected by well-being, autonomy and empowerment of creative workers while rigid bureaucracy can limit knowledge creation and hinder R.I..

Organisational Control Systems for innovation hubs have to evolve from hierarchical and bureaucratic control to self-managing teams with a high degree of operational freedom.  HRD Managers should listen to their talented employees and make sure that they are assigned to projects they care about, as innovative ideas often flourish in complex, stimulating high-commitment contexts.  The introduction of a timeframe in which employees can utilise organisational instruments to work on personal projects has also been identified as an effective way to increase creativity and it has led to ground-breaking innovations.  Higher levels of creative productivity have also been found to be related to increased responsibilities for individuals in organisational operations in which employees want to innovate rather than beingforcedto innovate.  In fact, it could even be argued that perceptions of pressure to innovate can have negative effects on individuals; HRD Managers should encourage the creation of a culture of trial and error in which their creative employees are not afraid to try nor to fail, as R.I. cannot be achieved by “playing it safe”.

Conclusions

In conclusion, managers should pursue R.I. to obtain a clear advantage over competitors; to achieve high levels of creativity and innovation they need to take part in the selection process for new talented individuals and train them in order to provide a new approach to innovative solutions, whilst keeping in mind that innovation is a social process.  HRD Managers can finally rise innovation efforts by increasing motivation and creativity through playful work and by empowering employees, granting them a high degree of independence whilst keeping them challenged and involved.