Sunday, 8 March 2015

Advancing a model for innovation pervading corporate culture


It is an axiomatic fact that corporate culture is at the heart of every organization and that the fortune and misfortune of every business is, at least in part, invariably depending on this organizational feature. The ruthless competition nowadays characterizing every market and the need for employers to constantly come up with new, brilliant, viable ideas to be subsequently transformed into something practically contributing to a business competitive edge, account for innovation being increasingly considered by every firm as a significant, critical value.
 
 
The most effective means employers can have recourse to in order to elicit employee contribution and participation to the endless process of generating new, creative ideas, by reason of the remarkable influence it exerts on individual behaviour, is that to embed innovation into organizational culture (Embedding innovation into organizational culture).

 
To be successful and attain in practice this ambitious and demanding objective, organizations have to carefully investigate and identify the most appropriate and effective plan of action. Nonetheless, the desired aim can be attained only whether all of the parties involved, that is, the employer, managers and employees will all contribute to and take actively part in the process. Organizations have to therefore first and foremost secure their management dauntless, truly commitment to the project; hence, with its help, that of the entire staff.

 


Table 1

 
The Employer’s role
To elicit innovation in the workplace the first activity, directly in charge of the employer, is concerned with ensuring that all of the employees have the right attitude and knowledge necessary to put forward new, significant ideas. To achieve this objective organizations have to actually adopt two different, parallel initiatives: one directed at the new hires and the other one at the existing employees. These activities are clearly intended to respectively adapt and redress the organization recruitment and learning practices.
 
 
 
Recruitment
In order to ensure that newcomers fit a business culture underpinned by innovation the HR function must, amongst the other things, investigate whether candidates have the required attitude and hopefully skills. Recruitment specialists should hence assess whether individuals have “creativity characteristics”, that is to say some specific “personality traits like intelligence, knowledge, risk taking, inquisitiveness, energy” (Martins and Terblanche, 2003) and imagination, and are truly open to continuous learning and frequent change.
 
 
At this stage, recruiters have to put particular emphasis on assessing candidate attitude, rather than current skills; whilst skills and capabilities can be in fact trained and gained, changing someone’s attitude definitely represents a far trickier feat.
 
 
Since innovation is very much associated with problem solving too, recruiters should also explore whether candidates have a keen interest towards this specific activity, which is habitually coupled with the attitude to overcome obstacles and problems (Price, 2007).
 
 
 
Diversity
An additional significant objective which can be achieved by means of recruitment is securing the business a diversified employee population. Diversity is broadly considered as a powerful driver of innovation on its own in that people with a different background and experience can not only contribute new perspectives and ideas, but also favour the activation of processes prompting all the members of a group to come up with new creative and innovative ideas (Bresnahan 199, Gardenswartz and Rowe, 1998, cited by Martins and Terblanche, 2003).
 

To this respect, Paletz et al (2014) warn about the different effects that a multicultural environment can potentially produce upon individual creativity. Social relationships within a multicultural environment can in fact potentially either trigger conflict, preventing thus individuals to think in an innovative and creative way or support the process and help participants to yield better results. The significance ascribed to cultural differences can thus make or break innovation and creativity in the workplace according to the circumstance that this is perceived as a likely cause for conflict and hence as a threat or as an enriching positive value.
 

Conflict can and to some extent has to arise; notwithstanding, this has not to be perceived as divisive and threatening individual diversity and freedom, but rather as an effective means to the innovation and creativity end. Diversity has to be fostered by employers within the organizational settings as an unquestionable value and, enabling social relationships amongst individuals of different backgrounds, as a powerful way of generating brilliant innovative ideas.
 
 
Employees need to genuinely embrace the idea that conflict, whether properly expressed and managed, can ease social relations and creativity; differently, individuals will be caught in the trap of the groupthink syndrome. The risk is not only that individual creativity may be stifled, but that even though employees may come up with genuinely good and viable innovative ideas, these would refrain to express them for fear of proposing something which might not be appreciated by the rest of the team or, more in general, not meeting the expectations of the other members of the group.


Employers, managers and HR must definitely foster diversity and multiculturalism in the workplace as a significant organizational value and as an effectual means to elicit innovative ideas.
 
 
 
Learning
Inasmuch as employers have to ensure that new hires fit their corporate culture and have the distinctive, necessary traits required to contribute innovative ideas, businesses should also do whatever they can to enhance their current staff ability to generate new, creative suggestions. Innovation is by no means an abstract intangible concept, ideas have to be subsequently transformed into viable sustainable projects leading to new products, services, processes, procedures or problem solving techniques, which need to have a practical application at reasonable costs. Innovation is thus definitely about an extremely challenging feat. Creativity, imagination and to some extent fantasy are required, but in order to employees being able to judge the practical use and sustainability of their ideas, it can be averred, knowledge will never be enough. To develop and boost individual contribution to innovation learning is therefore clearly of paramount importance.
 
 
Employers fostering a learning organization’s culture should find it fairly easier supporting organizational culture with innovation. The development of this type of culture, as for instance proposed by Gephart (1996), entails in fact the preparation and execution of a plan of action essentially based on some of the elements typical of an innovation culture such as: openness, trust, support, reward, experimentation and risk taking.
 
 
Continuous learning should definitely be at the basis of every innovation culture. Notwithstanding, learning has not to be intended as a means exclusively aiming at enabling employees to acquire technical and specialist knowledge. Gaining creative thinking abilities is clearly extremely important too as well as fostering an inquisitive approach and favouring relations amongst staff and between clients and staff in order for these to learn from the others (Martins and Terblanche, 2003).
 

 

Since long-lasting learning is mostly gained by individuals by means of direct experience and the practical application of what has been learned in theory, employers should invariably make extra efforts to offer employees as many opportunities they can for these gaining additional skills, expand their capabilities and use these in practice (Price, 2007). This objective can be indeed attained in many ways, the easier and possibly most effective being represented by offering individuals opportunities for internal and, whether applicable, international mobility.
 
 
Individuals coming from a different organizational area or unit can see and analyse a new role from a different perspective and could instinctively come up with new brilliant ideas aiming, for instance, at improving internal processes and procedures and solving the specific problems associated with doing a particular job. The worst comes to the worst it will enable individuals to gain a clear understanding of the activities performed in the other units of the organization.
 
 
By enabling individuals to fill a different position for any given length of time, internal mobility can prove to be an effective means to enable employees gaining additional skills and capabilities whilst expanding their expertise. Yet, offering individuals such opportunities may also effectively help employers to meet employees’ expectations as developed by these on the basis of their psychological contract. Gaining new competencies and expanding the personal background is indeed nowadays considered by a growing number of individuals as a particularly significant caveat of their unwritten psychological contract.
 
 
Horizontal and short vertical assignments can clearly effectually contribute to expand and develop individual capabilities, but can at the same time enable employers to test employee attitude towards new roles, higher degrees of autonomy and leadership.
 
 
Despite individual expectations are based on the assumption that the more they know, the more marketable they essentially are, on the other hand widening their field of expertise make feel individuals to be perceived, as it is, as more important by their current employer, too. It could hence be concluded that for employees marketability can be invariably coupled with job stability, irrespective of the specific identification of the employer: present or prospect.
 
 
 
Cooperative teamwork
Without a doubt, producing new ideas can be regarded as a difficult process entailing remarkable efforts and a broad knowledge. Assessing whether an idea can have viable practical applications can also require a wide range of specialist and technical expertise. Teamwork can hence show to be the most suitable approach to boost innovation. Individuals with different background, knowledge and expertise, by means of the synergy they can yield brainstorming and working together, can clearly achieve more positive and remarkable results than those produced by each of them working in isolation, by reason of the limited knowledge and vision some of them might have of the practical uses of a new technology or idea.

 

Cross-functional teams which favour specialist and social relations between the people in charge of developing new ideas and those who will execute these, can effectually support employers in leveraging innovation and ensure a more reliable and valuable output (Tushman and O’Reilly, 1997).
 
 
 
Freedom and autonomy
The process of eliciting creative, innovative ideas can be activated only by letting individuals feel that their employer really trusts them and gives them the necessary degree of latitude. Rather than posing and imposing restraints hence employers should favour individual empowerment and let employees make decisions about the means they deem appropriate to attain the pre-identified, pre-agreed objectives. This process is defined by Judge et al (1997) as the “chaos within the guidelines.” Individuals are given a high degree of freedom, but these have to perform their activities and adopt the approaches and procedures they consider suitable to attain the final purpose according to the guidelines previously agreed with their managers.
 
 
Excess of rigidity, nevertheless, could show to be a barrier to success so that in the event individuals working on a project should consider necessary and beneficial adopting a different approach, these should submit their case to the relevant manager and gain his/her approval before implementing the different method.
 
 
Arad et al (1997) identified the existence of a distinctive link between autonomy, freedom, empowerment and innovation. It could be described as somewhat of a virtuous circle: individual autonomy in decision-making generates people empowerment, which in turn ultimately positively influences employee capability to contribute innovative ideas. Yet, in order to favour employee ownership of the innovation process, in some organizations individuals proposing new ideas are automatically appointed as the project manager of the innovation team and are given the latitude to choose the members of the project team.
 
 
Tushman and O’Reilly (1997) maintain that the speed decisions are made impacts employee contribution to innovation in the workplace. In this case, however, the pace decisions are made does not relate to the process of generating new, creative ideas, but rather to their implementation. In order to effectually foster and favour innovation the decisions about a new project have to be made quickly and the actions identified to attain the practical result executed as promptly as possible.
 
 
Whether individuals can see a clear line of sight between their propositions and the final results yielded by their implementation these can find further motivation to contribute new ideas, whereas employers keep momentum.
 
 
 
Competitiveness
Teamwork, autonomy and freedom can clearly contribute to increase the degree of internal competition. Every individual within any given team might tend to stand out from the rest of the group to show his/her ability and skills. A high degree of competitiveness can indeed arise also when different groups work simultaneously in projects having the same or similar final aims. Internal competition might be a priori negatively perceived by employers, but it has not to be; whether properly managed, competition can in fact effectively favour and support innovation.
 


Findings of a research carried out by NĂ¿strom (1990) revealed that in many innovative business departments competition is perceived and deemed as a significant and distinctive value of organizational culture. This is essentially due to the circumstance that competitiveness, or rather, constructive competition ultimately leads to an increased level of knowledge. Individuals who want to shine within a group gather as much information as they can both in the endogenous and exogenous environment, hopefully generating an expanding-knowledge-related knock-on effect. During the group meetings, the level of conversation is thus likely to increase, making employees progressively feel the more and more incline and comfortable to openly share information and ideas.
 
 
 
Ability to manage conflict constructively
Inasmuch as competition can definitely boost innovation, whether improperly managed it can seriously hamper it and jeopardize the efforts made by an employer to this end.
 
 
Managers’ ability to effectually and constructively handle conflicts is of paramount importance. Nevertheless, this ability is not exclusively required in order to control the possible negative effects produced by competitiveness. Many of the features necessary to support and foster innovation in the workplace are in fact prone to generate internal conflicts: diversity, multiculturalism, teamwork and the possibly limited resources which can be made available by an employer can all account for conflict to emerge. Notwithstanding, this has not to be perceived as a negative aspect as long as managers are able to control conflict in order for this to be a source itself of new, innovative ideas and contribute to stimulate individuals debate and creativity.
 
 
The composition of a group which should hopefully allow for people of different background, expertise and education working together, can easily lead and should indeed hopefully lead, to divergences and different viewpoints, which can sometime be the fruit of the analysis, assessment and interpretation of the same information from different individuals. The problem is by no means associated with the activation of this process, but rather with the how it has to be managed to the benefit of innovation. As averred by Martins and Terblanche (2003), it is crucially important to understand the different individuals’ way of thinking and offer employees training sessions in “constructive confrontation.”
 
 
 
Risk Taking
Innovate and ensure that a new idea can be converted, at a reasonable cost, into something practically significant and valuable clearly entails taking some risks. It is indeed hardly believable that innovation might ever be pursued, and let alone achieved, averting risks and experimentation, which are indeed an intrinsic part of innovation.
 
 
Whether employers want to effectually foster innovation and creativity these have to encourage research and testing and consequently allow individuals to experiment and take some risks. An organization management should never exercise a strict and tight control on employees since this will unquestionably hamper rather than enhance innovation.
 
 
A clear limit should however be drawn and the business management should invariably watching, with discretion, that this line will never be crossed. According to Filipczak (1997), warning employees that risks can be taken only provided that these do not damage the business, might hinder innovation and contribute to refrain employees from being creative. Though employers’ pursuance of innovation necessary entails the acceptance of the side effects and risks eventually associated with this, it cannot be overlooked that the main aim and objective employers want to attain by fostering innovation is gaining competitive edge and not jeopardizing the business stability and reputation. Individuals can and have to be encouraged to take risks but in a controlled, rather than in an uncontrolled way. Managers must not exercise strict controls over individuals, but should at the same time ensure that in every instance the level of risk taken by individuals is acceptable according to the risk management practices (appetite and tolerance thresholds) implemented within the organization.
 
 
 
Tolerance of Mistakes
Testing, experimenting and risk-taking are intended to produce good and positive results hopefully in the first instance. However, it is possible and under some circumstances also likely, that something might go wrong. Mistakes, miscalculations and faults can clearly always occur; once again, what matters is that these are eventually properly managed and addressed.
 
 
Employees need to feel at ease when testing and experimenting the effects of their suggestions. Innovating is everything but a straightforward process so that mistakes have not to be intended and used as a means to punish employees, but rather as a valuable learning experience. To some extent, it can be even argued that faults may be considered as a means to an end, it is in fact learning by mistakes that ideas can be improved and the final purpose fulfilled.
 
 
Since mistakes can be related to many aspects and phases of the innovation process, these should hopefully be differently grouped and the actions taken to overcome these recorded into a lesson learned book, which could be used by the same group and other groups within the business for future reference.
 
 
 
Efforts, Resources and Time
Researching, experimenting and testing in order to ultimately coming up with creative, feasible, innovative ideas definitely require efforts, resources and time. Employees need to regularly have the possibility to concentrate and focus on these activities, but these can do it whether and only whether the employer gives them the required resources and time. In many innovative organizations employees can regularly devote a fraction of their time, usually 10 to 15 per cent, to the development and implementation of their ideas.
 
 
Filipczak (1997) claims that employers’ focus on downsizing and productivity can jeopardize innovation by reason of the increased level of pressure employees would be forced to bear and the hard work the existence of these circumstances usually entails. Whereas it is glaringly evident that employees would not be put in a position to contribute any innovative ideas whether prompted to only focus on their daily activities by reason of downsizing, it can be considered rather questionable the circumstance that innovation should be introduced to the detriment of productivity.
 
Innovation should invariably hamper neither productivity nor quality, nor should it expose employers to risks these might not be prepared and willing to accept. Despite under some circumstances organizations activate downsizing initiatives in order to favour productivity, these could also decide to renounce to execute downsizing plans in favour of innovation and to maintain current productivity. More in general, the decisions about staff rightsizing should be made in order to support innovation and at worst preserve productivity, but not to the detriment of this. In any case employers might be prompted to face a cost, but whether this should enable them to introduce innovative ideas and keep unaltered their productivity level these should better opt to hang it.
 
 
Time is definitely important but employees clearly also need the tools and the necessary spaces where to meet and work, also practically, to develop and implement their plans.
 
 
 
Reward and Recognition
Whereas failure has to be used as a valuable learning experience, success has to be properly celebrated. Albeit leading to two different results failure and success can be indeed both considered as a valuable learning experience. Whilst employees who have failed need to be supported and helped to find solutions to overcome problems and avoid future negative outcome, individuals who have actively and successfully contributed to the development of innovative ideas need to be properly rewarded. Nonetheless, this does not really mean that the individuals, who have actively contributed to innovation though not directly yielding immediate positive results, might not be rewarded, too. This should eventually not be tantamount to rewarding for failure, but should rather be regarded as a way to keep gaining momentum and provide stimulus to enthusiastic individuals, keen and eager to actively contribute to the innovation crusade.
 
 
Reward practices are actually introduced by employers to support their business and foster the desired behaviour. Organizations essentially foster innovation to pursue organizational strategy and ultimately gain competitive advantage; rewarding and recognizing individuals who have contributed to the attainment of this end by developing new ideas is consequently sorely appropriate and consistent with the intended objective. What matters is that the worthiness of the award is proportionate to the significance of the contribution made by each individual or group and that successes and contributors are respectively properly celebrated and gain visibility within the firm.
 
 
 
The management role
The role of managers is clearly paramount insofar as it can be averred that managers’ attitude to innovation represents the most decisive factor for the successful implementation of an innovation culture within a business (Reed, 2009). As claimed by Tushman and O’Reilly (1997), organizations whose managers actively support an innovation corporate culture have indeed stronger cultures. Management support to innovation has to be intended in the sense of acknowledging and accepting ownership for innovation. Whether managers do not accept this ownership, all the projects aiming at introducing and developing innovation are in fact drastically destined to end in miserable, total failure.
 
 
The role of managers is indeed crucially important throughout the process. Not only managers have to take ownership of the process, but these also have to support, advice and tutor the employees along the process. Managers must inspire individuals providing them a clear vision and eliciting individual inward, self-motivation.
 
 
One of the most important aspects which managers have to be ready to handle from the outset is that associated with the decisions they have to make in terms of reward and recognition. Whether employers want organizational culture to be underpinned by innovation, these have to reward people contributing to the process; as suggested by Arad et al (1997), whether innovation is rewarded, innovation will became firm part of individual behaviour.
 
 
Whereas success and not failure has to be celebrated, the situation is different as for regards reward. As discussed earlier, managers should propose reward and recognition measures for people who have produced successful ideas, but also in favour of those who have devoted efforts to test, experiment and implement ideas whose final stage of the process did not produced the expected positive outcome (Shattow, 1996 and Kanter, 1983).
 
 
As for the means and approaches to have recourse to in order to reward people, managers should refer to the reward practices existing within the business as possibly amended and updated in the light of the quest for innovation commenced in the organization.
 
 
 
Communication
Communication is of paramount importance as usual. Notwithstanding, in this instance communication is not only intended as a means to connect employers to employees, but first and foremost as a means to connect employees, managers and the different areas and units of an organization the one with the others (Frohman and Pascarella, 1990; Kirkpatrick, 1995; Shattow, 1996 and Filipczak, 1997). It goes without saying that also in this case the contribution of the business management is of remarkable significance; management “open doors” are in fact crucial to foster innovation (Bresnahan, 1997).
 
 
Since the mechanism behind innovation might be complex and not invariably obvious, face-to-face should represent the preferred approach to communication (Ahmed, 1998). Managers have to favour this process creating occasions when people can exchange information and experiences, and debate about their plans and expected results.
 
 
An open communication channel between employees and managers can only be activated whether this is built and consolidated on mutual trust. As discussed earlier, disagreement and conflict may invariably be around the corner; however, this has not only be accepted but also exploited as an additional leverage to innovation. As maintained by Martins and Terblanche (2003), by enabling individuals to expose dilemmas and paradoxes, disagreement can indeed help individuals to foster open communication and ultimately favour reciprocal trust.
 
 
 
A three-stage process
The introduction and development of an innovation culture essentially entails the unfolding of a constant, continuous process. Pandey and Sharma (2009) divide the process into two main stages: development and implementation.
 
 
The first phase of the process is concerned with research and investigation; it is hence devoted to the identification of viable alternatives to current products and procedures and is as such very much associated with discovery and risk taking. The second stage is concerned with the practical realization of the innovative products and the implementation of the new procedures designed during the first stage. It essentially aims at developing in practice what was previously planned in theory. During this phase, ideas are tested, refined and executed again until the final outcome can be deemed satisfactory and meeting the initial expectations.
 
 
This two-phase approach is actually most closely and strictly related to the pure and to some extent technical innovation process. In order to consider it as a comprehensive overarching process to which employers can have recourse to in order to introduce, achieve and execute an innovation culture it should also be introduced an additional pre-stage, that is to say preparation.
 
 
Before activating the process, it is necessary to ensure that all of the employees would welcome and are ready for it, and that the organizational settings have been appropriately prepared and equipped to favour its unfolding. Since, as largely discussed earlier, it is part of the process, for instance, giving individuals the time to focus on innovation and work on innovation-related projects as well as reward individuals for their contribution to innovation, employers should also consider reviewing and amending their internal policies as appropriate before officially launching any specific initiatives.

 

Table 2

 
Omitting this stage would mean taking it as an axiomatic fact that corporate culture is already favouring and supporting innovation, whereas this may not invariably be the case (or could hardly be the case). Taking as a reference the saying habitually used before the start of a race “ready, steady, go!”, neglecting this additional stage would be like jumping to the “steady” and “go” elements of the saying, skipping the “ready” stage. The “ready” phase of the process should be entirely devoted to the review of the recruitment and selection practices, or rather, of these and of all the other relevant polices. During the preparation phase, the employer should ensure that everything is ready for individuals to concentrate on innovation in terms of the fundamentals included in the model proposed in Table 1.
 
 
 
The innovation culture paradigm
Innovation can be clearly fostered more easily in some firms, rather than in others. Organizations where corporate culture supports competitiveness, employee readiness to change, open communication and the learning organization model there clearly is a higher degree of readiness, and thus better chances to successfully foster and promote innovation.
 
 
Change never represents a straightforward objective to achieve, firms which want to introduce an innovation culture and whose current model is rather distant from the ideal one might prefer to have recourse to an incremental, rather than to a revolutionary approach to innovation culture. Whether this should be the case, since innovation culture could also be intended as a combination of different sub-models, which whether simultaneously implemented should produce a synergic effect in perfect adherence with the bundling style, employers might decide to activate a progressive approach to innovation starting from one of the models included in the innovation culture paradigm showed in Table 3.

 

Table 3
This aspect is indeed of remarkable importance in that every initiative and activity an employer intends to pursue can be hindered or eased by corporate culture which, as it is frequently said, eats strategy for breakfast (Does culture eats strategy for breakfast?).
 
Longo, R., (2015), Advancing a model for innovation pervading corporate culture; Milan: HR Professionals.