What Role Does HR Play in Improving Innovation?

No organization, regardless of size, industry or nonprofit/private/publicly traded status, seeks to avoid innovation. What innovation means to each company might differ but being able to grow and adapt to a changing world or merely staying a few steps ahead of those changes is desirable for any organization. However, not every organization approaches innovation the same way, so the question remains: what can organizations do to improve their innovation efforts and what role does HR play? 

True innovation, whether product or process innovation, requires the use of the skills and backgrounds of many people. In organizations, that means teams. However, very few companies have teams that are structured in a way that improves or drives innovation. 

Giving managers the tools to help structure and manage teams, along with the training necessary to foster those skills, must fall into the hands of HR. 

Another factor that holds many organizations back in trying to foster innovation is their culture. Companies with a more competitive culture, which Brandon Hall Group defines as “a results-driven organization focused on job completion at all other expenses. People are competitive and goal-oriented. Leaders are demanding, hard-driving and productive. The emphasis on winning is incented in the organization. Success means market share and penetration, not innovation, flexibility and inclusiveness. Competitive pricing and market leadership are important,” have inherent conflicts between their internal drivers and what is needed for innovation. 

HR leadership must balance the strength and weaknesses of their corporate culture and if the current culture is not conducive to the amount of innovation needed, they must become change-management agents for creating the type of environment that lends itself to more risk-taking, collaboration and free expression.

In the 2021 Brandon Hall Group Strategy Brief, How to Develop a Winning Team, the observation was made that “… many teams are actually groups of individuals rather than truly high-functioning teams that drive business results through collaboration.” 

Interestingly, one of the consequences of not having a more innovative mindset in an organization is also one of the drivers of not having more innovation: lack of diversity of thought and experience. Companies that can move forward, to think differently and to create a more open-minded and change-oriented culture are also more attractive to forward-thinking, diverse individuals who would want to join that culture and create new products, services or ways of doing work. HR, and especially those tasked with talent acquisition and succession management, must be highly in tune with the benefits of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) in driving innovation and how innovation helps their DE&I efforts. 

On a Scale of 1 to 5, Which of the Following Are Improved by Your Organization’s D&I programs? 

Brandon Hall Group’s research shows that companies with more successful DE&I programs also saw marked improvement in their ability to innovate. It is a virtuous circle: companies that innovate attract creative talent, who then help create the next wave of innovations. Of course, companies that fail to do the same will be locked into the opposite spiral; a vicious cycle of closed-mindedness and stagnation with a lack of diverse thought and a dearth of innovation. 

To increase innovation, organizations need to know what is being done now, what could be improved, and what role HR plays in fostering innovation. Key questions organizations should address include: 

  • What tools and technologies are available to individuals and teams to disseminate and develop ideas? 
  • What metrics are used to determine progress toward innovation goals now and how will those metrics be monitored and acted upon as innovation development efforts go forward? 
  • Who in HR is responsible for driving innovation and how are they held accountable for their success? 
  • Why is innovation critical to your business success, and how can innovation be directly attributed to meeting business goals?

Create teams that prioritize innovation over production.  The ultimate goal of any member of an organization, individual or team, is to contribute to the organization’s attainment of its stated goals. However, teams have different capabilities than individuals and different ways of contributing to those goals. The greatest strength in teams is in bringing a diversity of thought, skills and experiences to bear on a problem and that is exactly what is needed to drive innovation. Instead of focusing on production levels of teams as their main goals, HR professionals in charge of performance management should place a heavier focus on coming up with new ways to work, new communication channels to open and new products and services to help internal and external customers. These types of efforts will be rewarded with greater innovation that serves the business in the short and long term. 

Reevaluate the metrics used to measure innovation.  Innovation is sometimes pigeonholed as purely about new products or services. However, innovation can take many forms. One Brandon Hall Group member is focused on business process innovation; how to get their products into customers’ hands faster and easier. Another thing to think about is that improvements to existing products or systems can also count as innovation, and like all other forms, should be counted when evaluating the success of your innovation efforts. For HR professionals looking at evaluating people metrics, it is worth revisiting the types of data you assess and what types you are communicating to show the impact of your innovation efforts. 

Tie your innovation goals to your diversity efforts.  One of the biggest drivers for innovation is diversity. This only makes sense, as having a group of people who bring different skills, experiences, backgrounds and ways of thinking naturally leads to new or improved products, services and processes. However, there is no way to track this if your organization does not make the connection between diversity and innovation. DE&I professionals should make the business case that increased diversity leads to more innovation (and vice versa) and you will be better able to see how each of these efforts works in tandem with the other. 

Make Innovation Matter through Rewards and Recognition. 

As with any HR-driven program, it is important to consider human motivation. Many people in any organization are naturally creative or think outside of the box, but without the proper incentive to do so they may see no reason to take the risks that are intrinsic to innovation. Throwing money at people will not make them more innovative, but some people will be more likely to bring new ideas forward if they are valued enough by the company with a formal structure for doing so. Recognition plays a large role in innovation too. Beyond being a motivator, it helps all employees see the innovations being made and may help spark some ideas of their own. 

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Mike Cooke



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Mike Cooke

Chief Executive Officer of Brandon Hall Group Mike Cooke Prior to joining Brandon Hall Group, Mike Cooke was the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AC Growth. Mike held leadership and executive positions for the majority of his career, at which he was responsible for steering sales and marketing teams to drive results and profitability. His background includes more than 15 years of experience in sales, marketing, management, and operations in the research, consulting, software and technology industries. Mike has extensive experience in sales, marketing and management having worked for several early high-growth emerging businesses and has implemented technology systems to support various critical sales, finance, marketing and client service functions. He is especially skilled in organizing the sales and service strategy to fully support a company’s growth strategy. The concept of growth was an absolute to Mike and a motivator in starting AC Growth, in order to help organizations achieve research driven results. Most recently, Mike was the VP and General Manager of Field Operations at Bersin & Associates, a global analyst and consulting services firm focused on all areas of enterprise learning, talent management and talent acquisition. Tasked with leading the company’s global expansion, Mike led all sales operations worldwide. During Mike’s tenure, the company has grown into a multi-national firm, conducting business in over 45 countries with over 4,500 multi-national organizations. Mike started his career at MicroVideo Learning Systems in 1992, eventually holding a senior management position and leading all corporate sales before founding Dynamic Minds. Mike was CEO and Co-Founder of Dynamic Minds, a custom developer of software programs, working with clients like Goldman Sachs, Prentice Hall, McGraw Hill and Merrill Lynch. Also, Mike worked for Oddcast, a leading provider of customer experience and marketing solutions, where he held a senior management position leading the company into new markets across various industries. Mike also serves on the Advisory Board for Carbon Solutions America, an independent sustainability consulting and carbon management firm that specializes in the design and implementation of greenhouse reduction and sustainability plans as well as managing the generation of carbon and renewal energy and energy efficiency credits. Mike attended University of Phoenix, studying Business Administration and Finance. He has also completed executive training at the Chicago Graduate School of Business in Chicago, IL.