The Innovative Workplace: Does HR Hold the Key?

By Anya Levykh

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
~ Steve Jobs (1955-2011), co-founder and late chairman/CEO of Apple Inc.

Stop the presses. Shut the door. And hold on to your hats, ladies and gents, there’s a new buzzword in HR-ville, and its name is innovation.

Hold on, really? Well, okay, maybe not. Innovation has been an HR—and corporate—buzzword for several years now. How many times have you heard,“If you don’t innovate, you die” from sages, seers and CEOs at conferences, seminars and book readings? More often than necessary, most likely.

However, as HR continues its metriculation in the language of business, it is also being called upon to unlock the innovative potential of organizations’ intellectual capital. And yes, innovation is considered key to remaining competitive in our changing marketplace, both in terms of the teams we build and the products/services we sell. So, with the ball bouncing at our feet, where do we go from here?

Accepting Risk, Managing Change

Chef Chris Mills

One widely-touted definition of innovation is the commitment of resources to an uncertain future. Innovation, (which is really just a fancy word for change), by its very nature, implies a journey into the unknown, an abandonment of certainty; with that abandonment comes the embracing of risk. If the company as a whole can’t accept that risk, the chances of any meaningful innovation occurring become almost nil.

“Culturally, I think it’s embedded in us,” says Chris Mills, executive chef for Joey Restaurants. “[At Joey,] we really do embrace that, and feel that risk is rewarded. We’re okay with things that don’t work, because the opposite of that would be stifling any innovation by being over-reactionary or overly-cautious. We try something and look at the cost afterward, but that only adds to the anticipation, the wonderment about what’s going to happen next. And at the micro-level of a new employee, that allows them to feel part of this larger ‘spark’ that is happening in the company.”
That “spark” is a highly valuable side benefit of innovation, according to Marjorie Calibaba, CHRP, vice-president of HR at Oppenheimer Group. “Innovation creates energy in the workplace, and that energy is exciting. It means you’re moving forward, re-inventing yourself.”

Marjorie Calibaba, CHRP

Mills agrees. “I approach it with guns a-blazing. One of the joys for me of working with my company is that there are no boundaries to what you can try. Most of it is ‘shoot first and ask questions later,’ which is a luxury, but it also produces some great hits.”

Business Readiness: A Work in Progress

For those who feel the “shoot first” method is a bit extreme, taking a page out of the Pacific Blue Cross playbook might be more palatable.

“We created a role within the company to specifically look after change management,” says Anne Kinvig, former director of HR and current chief operating officer for Pacific Blue Cross and BC Life. “We’ve been refreshing our systems since 2004, but the biggest change is ahead, as we are replacing our core claims and administrations systems, which impact the entire organization. We realized we didn’t have the same amount of rigour on the people side of the change as we did on the technology side, and, for me, the people side is just as important—if not more—as getting a code right.”

As PBC’s “business readiness manager”, Kinvig takes an integrated approach to all of the people elements associated with change: including change management, strategic workforce planning, resource management, effective communications, preparing leaders, and learning and development models.

Anne Kinvig

“We also use a business readiness score card,” continues Kinvig, “which tells management how we are doing on the technology front, how we are doing on the business readiness front, and how we are doing on our stakeholder management, as our clients will be interfacing with us differently [through the new self-serve portals]. It’s a work in progress.”

Rethinking Risk: A Reapplication of Resources

Regardless of the approach, once a company has embraced the concept of risk with all that it entails (namely, the possibility of failure), the question then becomes: how much risk is too much?

It’s basically a dedication of resources,” says Ann Leckie, Director of Human Resources at Teldon Media Group. “And you want to break down those resources into process improvements. This is what I call incremental innovation or the inch-worm method of innovation. People often don’t see this as innovation, but I believe it is, because you are constantly focused on process improvement. How can I do this better, faster, cheaper, higher quality?”

“The constant application of resources to finding a way to do something better means you don’t see innovation day to day, but you see it looking back, you see how far you have come from where you were. And if you can get an entire organization focused on doing things better, you can actually transform the company in a relatively short period of time, by everyone making day-to-day innovative decisions on how to find a better way,” says Leckie. “That is the unsung hero of innovation.”

Of Inch-Worms and iPods

That incremental form of innovation may not have the flash and bang of more obvious and dramatic changes, but it does have the benefit of being more common than what Leckie calls “the iPad approach” to innovation, referring to when a company comes up with a new product, service or system that didn’t exist before.

Ann Leckie

“Those types of innovation, generally speaking, are few and far between,” explains Leckie. “Look at the automobile. We’re still essentially using cars with an internal combustion engine. There hasn’t been a huge leap. There has been constant improvement, constant change, but we haven’t replaced the automobile with personal flying saucers for everyone. But there are some places where the leap of innovation has actually occurred. Software, for instance, or moving from textbooks to e-readers. That’s a leap. Those innovations are fabulous, but both types of innovation are what corporations want and need, and HR has a role to play in both.”

Inform and Educate to Create

If knowledge is power, then HR is in the unique position of creating innovative power through its more traditional roles of information dissemination and knowledge building. “I think people are more innovative when they have all of the information,” says Calibaba, “because they know what to target in terms of making it better.”

At Oppenheimer, that belief has resulted in the creation of Oppy-U, a corporate “university” that has the tri-fold purpose of teaching employees how to get the best out of themselves, the people they lead, and the company as a whole.

“We also communicate a lot with our employees on our business priorities and the results that we’ve achieved,” continues Calibaba, “so that we keep them in the loop. They get the minutes of all of our management meetings, so there’s no one who can say they don’t know what’s going on in our company.”

The idea of transparency is one that is echoed by Leckie. “HR, at its heart, is a communication vehicle. You’re either communicating internally or externally. Internally, you’re communicating how things get done around here, like organizational design, compensation, how employees win by getting promoted, training, etc. Externally, HR communicates the values and principles of the company in order to encourage the right type of candidate to come into the organization.”

Education can also drive innovation in a more direct way, by utilizing the collective energy of a group. “We run a company-wide program called the League of Extraordinary Chefs,” says Mills. “I’m very passionate about having young cooks learn all aspects of running what is a very complicated business, as well as learning to cook. So, we create various projects or challenges that anyone in the company can take on, and suddenly you have over 400 chefs tackling the same project. Last year’s winner accompanied me to New York to cook at the James Beard Foundation. It’s very rewarding.”

Innovative Employees: Nature vs. Nurture

No amount of education or knowledge can change those who aren’t receptive to change. Finding innovative people is a key component of HR’s mandate, but what makes for an innovative employee?

“In the recruiting process, I do believe past experiences can indicate the nature of the person,” says Leckie. “So, are the matrices we develop to select new candidates asking the candidates questions about innovation? Are we measuring future candidates by their ability to be innovative and finding examples in their past where they were innovative? But, I also believe that, in many cases, innovation is actually a learned behaviour. You are teaching people how to break the mould, when being outside the box is actually important and value-added. So are we creating learning and training programs that create the environment for learning and innovation?”

Mills, whose company just won a PRISM award from the International Federation of Coaching for their commitment to innovation through people development, adds: “When someone is willing to speak up, to voice their opinions and ideas in front of a group; that already shows their potential for leadership. Just being able to communicate and be vocal with ideas is the beginning of innovation. So we look for people who can express themselves, and aren’t afraid to say things.”

Calibaba agrees. “We look for people who are interested in connecting to the business, who get involved, who have tons of ideas and are willing to share them.”

“We want our people to be capable, ready and engaged,” concurs Kinvig. “We want to know they’ve had the right training at the right time, and the adequate resources and support.”

One of the ways a company can provide that support, according to Leckie, is through the creation of an innovation circle, where people are pulled together for a short time from the different areas of the company in order to brainstorm and develop innovative products and services.

At Oppenheimer, that circle is known as the Strategic Planning Advisory Forum. There’s an employee from each of our offices in the U.S. and Canada,” explains Calibaba. “We get together once a year and develop our strategy together. We also survey our employees and ask them for their ideas and suggestions for a variety of areas. Our job is to communicate what the company is doing and where it’s going, to be the eyes and ears of the organization.”

Reward Programs and Treasure Chests

So you’ve got your people primed to innovate and you’ve implemented new hiring policies to seek out more potential innovators. You’ve also given them the knowledge and skills to begin the creative process. How do you keep the ball rolling?

“HR needs to help create a corporate structure where innovation can flourish and is encouraged,” says Leckie. “Are we setting up reward programs for innovation, for process improvement? Are we including a spot to reward innovation in our succession plans and performance reviews?”

At Oppenheimer, a peer-to-peer recognition program allows employees to receive intangible and tangible rewards. “Our Treasure Chest program allows our employees to tell each other when someone has done a good job,” says Calibaba. “Anyone can submit a note congratulating a fellow employee, and the recipient may receive a gift card to Starbucks or something similar. We also have supervisor-to-employee awards, and employee of the year awards.”

Mills believes that rewards can be tangible as well. In addition to Joey Restaurants’ League of Extraordinary Chefs, the company has a special program for managers that allows them to own shares in the company. “We try to promote the mentality of ‘It’s your business,’ says Mills. “We give them the ability to contribute and see how those contributions are affecting the business—both positively and negatively.”

The Key Tie to Culture

A key method of promoting innovation is creating an environment where creativity can flourish. “We believe culture is one of the most important elements in this industry,” says Calibaba. In fact, Oppenheimer places such a strong emphasis on culture that is has created a tie-in between the corporate culture and employee involvement, and its profit-sharing program.

The push to get employees involved extends to things like providing company shirts for employees and their families who participate in sponsored runs; free company bootcamps, personal defence training, earthquake preparedness at home and at work, and more.

“The community outreach programs that we have are not only a team-building exercise, they also make people feel good about what they do,” Calibaba continues. “I think it has changed people’s awareness of the needs of their community and their willingness to be part of that. And they get to share that with their colleagues, rather than being on their own.”

That environment can also have the intangible but necessary benefit of reinforcing for employees the values of the company they work for.

Mandy Whiting

Vancity’s recent implementation of the Living Wage program is one example of this. “It underscores for employees the true vision and direction of our organization,” says Mandy Whiting, director of HR service delivery and total rewards at Vancity. “There is a certain amount of cost attached, but the bottom line is that profit was not a driver for us getting involved with this. It’s a real example of walking the talk, of putting our money where our mouth is. We’re very much a community-based organization and this was about doing what was right for our communities. It’s been an initiative that’s brought a lot of pride to our employees and underscores what we’re really about, in a tangible reflection of the company’s vision.”

HR: Facilitator vs. Leader

So is HR poised to become the new leader of corporate innovation? Actually…no.

“HR can drive the culture and capabilities required for an organization to become more innovative,” says Kinvig. “But the reality is that no organizational change of that magnitude can happen without the leader of the organization supporting the HR role to create transformative change. It can’t be an HR program, it has to be an organizational program, with HR being a leader in facilitating that change.”

Leckie agrees. “HR is meant to be a strategic driver in the organization. Is this taking HR from transactional to strategic? Yes. Should it be a leap? No, not if HR is actually doing its job. HR is supposed to be strategic, and being strategic means, to my mind, being innovative.”

“We all have a responsibility to make the company better,” Calibaba sums up. “And it’s not just management’s or HR’s purview—it’s everybody’s purview.”

The Next Step

As HR stands ready to become the great enabler of innovative futures everywhere, some are already asking what the next step will be. With the growing shift from position- to project-based work, a careful look at the systems and structures in place for suppliers and contractors might be a logical place to start.

“I think more and more work is going to be parcelled out into project work,” says Leckie, “and I think that will cause us to rethink a lot of former HR processes and systems, documentation, and knowledge management.”

According to Leckie, some of the next big leaps in innovation for HR will be in these areas, as well as in social media and knowledge management.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2011)

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Leadership

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