Why innovation is HR’s business too

Organisations are under more pressure than ever to innovate, and the HR function is in a fantastic position to support them with these ambitions, argues Victoria Harrison-Mirauer.

Innovation is now everyone’s business. It is no longer the preserve of research and development teams, nor is it limited to the development of new products and services, and any company which still sees it this way is way behind the curve.

The scope for innovation is widening all the time to include organisational culture, ways of working, operational processes, customer insight, marketing, business models, recruitment, training and management development.

Everything is an innovation opportunity. There are opportunities to support an innovation agenda in myriad ways. So how can the HR team help? Here’s how the HR function can be a massive support to the development of a culture of innovation.

People not processes breed innovation

Why do we talk about a culture of innovation and what do we mean? When we look at innovation through a people lens it is immediately obvious where HR plays a pivotal role. Innovation asks that people work together differently to come up with new insights and alternative solutions; this isn’t a logical or linear process.

At its best, innovation it is an iterative, interpersonal endeavour. Culture really matters. If you have an organisation where experimentation is encouraged, leaders listen, assumptions are questioned and the customer or key stakeholders needs are genuinely and curiously considered you are on your way to an environment where innovation can thrive.

We are rarely ‘born innovators’. Innovation behaviours and capabilities can be learned, nurtured and developed. HR can support this by working closely with learning and development teams.

HR and technology

Aside from the challenges of identifying skills needed in such rapidly changing technology driven contexts, it’s HR’s job to pay attention to important aspects of work including employee wellbeing and engagement. These are areas where technological change has a prominent influence.

Technology creates different stressors, new occupational health issues and alternative mental health dimensions. HR teams understand the employee domain, can interpret employee data and provide an important feedback loop for operational and strategic decision-making.

Organisation agility is an important part of innovation; this demands flatter structures, bringing the customer to the table, supporting good networks of communication, more project-based working and healthy, cognitive diversity in cross functional teams. HR can have a significant and positive influence in all those areas.

Recent work published Alison Reynolds of Ashridge Executive Education in the Harvard Business Review provides insights into the relationship between cognitive diversity, levels of psychological safety and the resulting ‘generative’ nature of team and organisation culture.

All to say HR can take the birds eye view on these aspects of organisation structure, effectiveness and culture and encourage these environments as well as the capabilities needed for innovation to flourish.

Industry 4.0 is intimately linked to Workforce 4.0

Working with a group of future leaders from a global engineering company at Ashridge Executive Education last week, we were thinking through the implications of digitisation and the technologies driving industry 4.0.

What became immediately clear was that industry 4.0 transformation brings with it a need for workforce 4.0 planning.

The two are intimately connected. So, HR teams are central players in these strategic discussions, not just the folks we rely on to fill the talent pipeline and bring the right skills and capabilities into the organisation post hoc. HR leaders need to be front and centre of these conversations, part of the engine driving digital transformation, not just reactive in responding to it.

HR as a role model for innovative practice

HR itself is a role model for innovative practice in the organisation. It can apply design thinking methodologies, use technology solutions to create efficiencies, experiment with new ways of working and building virtual networks, but also embrace the opportunities and the challenges presented by digital work, virtual office environments, digital transformation and the evolving landscape of skills and capabilities.

HR can be a standard bearer. HR can lead from the front, practicing what it preaches.

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Victoria Harrison-Mirauer

About Victoria Harrison-Mirauer

Victoria Harrison-Miraurer is Discipline Lead for Innovation at Ashridge Hult International Business School
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