​What can businesses do to make innovation happen?

You won't hear a bad word about innovation from business leaders, but that doesn't mean they know how to ensure more of it happens in their firms.
Written by Toby Wolpe, Contributor
If you think innovation in business doesn't matter, you're in a lonely minority. In fact, 91 percent of firms rate innovation as important or critically important, with another seven percent conceding it does have some impact, according to new research. Just one percent don't rate it.

However, the HP-Aecus study also shows that innovation isn't just one thing. It's a spectrum of ideas that might affect how an individual team functions, through big IT projects, to major scientific or technological breakthroughs.

The trouble is that although almost everyone thinks innovation is desirable, just six percent of companies see themselves as very good at it, with only a further one in four businesses saying they're seeing regular and successful achievements from their efforts.

Together, those two groups account for 31 percent of organisations and demonstrate the disparity between the desire for increasing innovation and its realisation.

To close that gap, and rather than leaving innovation to chance, the first step for most businesses has to be the creation of the right environment for it to flourish. Of course, that environment requires funding, resources and cultural change.

But as an important step, the HP-Aecus report authors suggest the creation of an innovation agenda -- or what analyst firm Gartner calls a 'business manifesto for digital workplace success'.

Innovation charter

Gartner's Matthew Cain: Roles and responsibilities are changing rapidly.
Image: Gartner
Accenture's Colin Sloman: A bunch of technologies to enhance the brain and brawn of the individual employee.
Image: Accenture

This manifesto should set out in plain language what the initiative's business benefits are "to make the digital workplace actionable and real to all stakeholders", according to Gartner. Among other things, it should put the emphasis on a more transparent, observable and collaborative work environment.

"Part of the digital workplace charter is to say we think that our organisation can gain a competitive advantage by being able to exploit these new technologies faster than our competition," said Gartner VP distinguished analyst Matthew Cain.

"But we also know that in many ways employees have to see how it's going to benefit them, this use of new technology. Things like smart machines and analytics, by the way, can be very threatening to the employee community. So we want to be able to introduce this new technology in a way that employees can really see how they're going to benefit and it's going to promote their engagement levels," Cain added.

Tools and technology for innovation

The tools and technology that can help innovation take root range from those analytics, through modelling and design, to social media and collaboration.

Accenture managing director, strategy, talent and organisation Colin Sloman said it is a mistake to assume the company alone is behind the introduction of these technologies.

"In many cases, it's being driven by the employee as well. As talent is scarce, the employee becomes much more demanding in what the employer will contribute," Sloman, who co-authored the recent Humanizing Work Through Digital report, said.

"Expectations of things like social media and things like technology and tools, and bring-your-own-devices, and having access to all the things you would expect in the modern organisation -- so it's a sort of consumerising view of the world. Employees are actually demanding it."

Technology that can help engender innovation can go well beyond the obvious candidates, added Sloman.

"Directing with artificial intelligence, using analytics to support your thinking and cognitive capabilities, exoskeletons to help with physical capabilities -- you've got a whole bunch of new technologies to enhance both the brain and the brawn of the individual in the organisation," Sloman said.

Gartner's Matthew Cain believes the introduction of technology, if done correctly, will lead to innovation.

"New technology actually accelerates the pace of even newer technology. We're just digesting mobile, social, cloud and analytics," he said.

"All these are still being digested, but right around the corner we've got smart machines, virtual personal assistants, the internet of things, and beacons and sensors and it's like, 'Bam! It's coming'."

Culture and hierarchies

According to Accenture's Colin Sloman, organisations know that the implementation of these tools and technologies can be far from straightforward, which is why it must be accompanied by changes in culture.

"You can implement all sorts of things, but people may not adopt them, because either the mindsets or the behaviours or the culture isn't there. You could make lots of investments. In fact, a lot of our clients come to us because they've invested in technologies but they're not getting the value out of them -- the culture hasn't followed," he said.

"If the organisation isn't supportive of open communications, collaboration, and willing to listen to people of all levels, then it falls on fallow ground. Leaders have a big role in setting out the expectation for collaboration that they're reinforcing and encouraging collaboration and involvement from across the organisation."

To encourage staff to adopt newly-introduced technologies, firms can employ techniques drawn from behavioural science, such as gamification, awards, competitions and challenges.

"Thirty-day challenges are something that we've introduced for clients, where each day we'll have a micro action. So it might be talk to somebody or post something on a website or use LinkedIn instead of picking up the telephone, or instead of an email putting something on a knowledge-sharing site," Sloman said.

"Those micro actions over a period of time lead to a macro change. If 100 people start using a collaboration site instead of sending a one-to-one email, you start to create momentum, you start to create a new way of working -- it's the working-in-the-open thing.

"If you've got leaders encouraging it, saying, 'Don't send an email. Share it on the collaboration site', you start to build behavioural change. That's where the value and the innovation come in because you can connect new dots that were not visible when you had one-to-one emails."

The involvement of senior staff in the drive to more innovation is essential. But that participation will run alongside changes in hierarchies, communication and jobs themselves.

"If you want people to collaborate, make it part of the normal work process. Don't make it an extra thing that makes it more difficult. Also, you need to make collaboration something that's core and recognised and leader-reinforced, where leaders are role models in encouraging it rather than it being something for people to show off or add on, or not actually part of their daily work," said Sloman.

Shift in communication

But just as those technologies can bring a greater focus on the details of how an individual performs, they can also bring senior executives into more direct contact with junior staff.

"This is an emerging phenomenon where the new recruit one week in can engage with the CEO to complain about the induction process or whatever -- because they can and because their mindset is that they've been hired so they should be valued and their opinion counts," said Sloman.

"The millennial mindset would say, 'Well, if I can tweet to the CEO of Virgin because I don't like the seat I'm sitting in, why can't I tell the CEO of a company that's just hired me what I think?'"

The danger for innovation is that the CEO's instinct may be to censure that individual, rather than engage with him or her.

"That's a whole new mindset, a whole new set of attitudes around connectivity. If the response of the CEO is to slap that person down, then they've really blown it by disempowering the millennials who they've hired for their talent and their collaboration and their willingness to bring new ideas," Sloman said.

"Alternatively, if there's positive reinforcement, saying, 'Yes, thanks for bringing this to my attention. Let's work out together how to fix it'. Working in the open like that you suddenly break the old cultural paradigms and open up a new dialogue in the organisation."

Changing job structures

Those changes to hierarchy, communications and company culture brought about by the introduction of technology to enhance innovation can also have an impact on the nature of jobs themselves.

Gartner's Matthew Cain said that data shows how work in general is moving away from routines and fixed job structures.

"A lot of that is a result of computerisation. We've automated all the routine tasks. That means when you go to work every morning, now you're going to be asked to be autonomous. You're going to have to show local leadership and you're going to have to have immediate decision-making. You're going to have to take the initiative," he said.

"This is not your old routine work. This is really interesting dynamic non-routine work. Therefore the nature of work itself is changing, therefore our approach to technology has to keep up with the changing nature of work."

One of the ways that digital technology is aiming to engender innovation is in its impact on workgroup structures and engagement.

"You have to be engaged to willingly drop what you're doing and join a new team and have a great attitude about it. With work the way it's moving, you're absolutely going to be thrown into a situation where you're not only going to be changing your roles and responsibilities on a very rapid basis but you're going to be working with people outside your organisation -- the whole on-demand economy," Cain said.

Accenture's Colin Sloman argues that fixed jobs and fixed roles are diminishing in response to the need for greater flexibility and innovation.

"There will be people with standard roles, but the project and the programme work becomes much more likely to be part of everyday corporate life. In the past, 90 percent or more would be fixed roles and these are now more like half the roles, more like a startup," he said.

"There's a whole case for design your own job -- people being more specific about what they're going to contribute to a company. Teams that form and reform, disband and reform around particular tasks are becoming more common and the formal job becoming fungible and people swarming around tasks and particular activities, rather than what's in their job description or in a formal role."

Skills for innovation

According to Sloman, businesses must focus on the skills they need in the pursuit of innovation, developing these in existing staff and hiring where necessary.

"As people and tasks become automated, then the human aspects become more important," he said.

"Whether it's emotional intelligence, communication and leadership, or creating customer experiences: the things that individuals and human beings do better than machines are the things we're going value from people. Those collaborative capabilities join the dots that perhaps people wouldn't see naturally."

In the case of the banking industry, customers are typically not engaging through a branch but through online, digital, and mobile applications.

"That sends a bunch of challenges to the workforce leaders, with them having to think about, 'What are we going to use to have the workforce contribute?" Sloman said.

"How do we get that workforce more able to serve the customer in a different way? Those are the types of questions that are being thrown out at our clients. 'How do you apply analytics? Do we have skills for people to use those analytics? Have we got data scientists who can interpret?'. Those are the challenges that are coming up."

As Gartner's Matthew Cain sees it, many organisations are overlooking the skills already present in the workforce, and in their customer bases, and are therefore failing to capitalise on them.

"What's happening now is that most consumers have tremendous digital literacy. People are spending more and more time on screens and are active participants in the on-demand economy," he said.

"I don't think many organisations have sat down and said, 'Hey, given all this digital literacy, how are we exploiting it as a business?'. That's kind of a missing part of the whole conversation. It used to be that you learned your digital skills at work. That's long gone. Now it's the business computing environment that is actually behind the consumer culture."

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