HR’s Role in Innovation

Innovation should not be restricted to products; service delivery can be innovative and can be tested through experimentation and recognition

One of the issues I’ve always had with the broader discussion around innovation is that it’s almost always in reference to product innovation. We all know there’s nothing wrong with product innovation in itself, but there are other opportunities for organizations to improve service delivery with innovation as the driving force. innovation

Last week I finished reading a book called Cultural Transformations: Lessons on Leadership and Corporate Reinvention. It was a great book for several reasons, but one quote really hit home for me:

When executives change their leadership culture, they are rewarded with significant, sustainable outcomes, including… genuine organizational innovation for not only products but also the organizational systems required to sustain innovation.

Those “organizational systems” he refers to? That is the infrastructure that enables the organization to create value for customers. Unlike product innovation, which typically happens in the R&D department, this innovation can span across marketing, finance, and even HR. The building blocks of the organization, its processes and systems, are all opportunities to improve.

There are two easy ways to test the waters of innovation with relatively low risk: experimentation and recognition.


Last year I wrote about using scientific processes to improve HCM results. The same advice holds true today. Experiment with new ideas frequently. It doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering test. Marketing professionals use simple measures called “A/B tests” to compare two similar items to determine which is more appealing. It could be something as simple as the color of a button or the size of the font, but tweaking and testing these smaller features can lead to impressive long-term gains.

Find something that you can test and give it a shot. Here are a few examples of other companies and what they have done:

  • Present high-fidelity training and low-fidelity training to two separate employee groups. Measure results and performance and determine if there is a need to pay a premium for high-fidelity training or if both get similar results. (AT&T)
  • Train your employees to an internal standard level and compare them with their untrained peers. Is there an improvement, or did the training return no value for the time/money invested? (Waddell & Reed)
  • Take a segment of your workforce and create a hiring program that aligns with your sales and growth forecasts. Evaluate the impact on recruiting and workforce planning. Was there increased efficiency or effectiveness based on the preparation? (Under Armour)



It might not be your job as an HR leader to recognize employees, but it is your job to design/build the system that your employees and managers use. We know that recognition improves employee engagement, and innovation provides an opportunity to target those employees that are dreaming up new ideas and methods to improve the business.

The outcomes for submitting ideas can be as simple as peer/social recognition or it could include financial incentives and rewards. Whatever the case, be sure to create a system and culture of recognition that makes employees want to find smarter ways to work. Don’t just attempt to motivate your people—inspire them.

Think about it: if our learning, talent, and hiring practices are better than a competitor’s, we have an advantage in the marketplace. Our people at all levels are more effective and the organization is more agile as well. This is where HR’s true organizational value lies.

Key Takeaways:

  • How can you revise your practices to incorporate experimentation, recognition, and connection into the overall innovation equation?
  • If someone suggests an innovation that does not directly affect products and services delivered, is the idea still treated with the same value? Why or why not?

Ben Eubanks, HCM Analyst, Brandon Hall Group


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