Employee Engagement

How to cultivate innovation in the workforce

By Jana Reserva

Sep. 7, 2020

Innovation is key to an organization’s success, but what is it really? Workforce.com recently caught up with Victor Assad, managing partner of InnovationOne, LLC and author of “Hack Recruiting: The Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process and Digitization,” to discuss how companies can foster innovation and see actual results from doing so. 


Workforce: We always hear that innovation is key to success in an organization. But what does it really mean? 

Victor Assad: It means that an organization is churning out innovations that drive financial value in products, services, or new business models for its customers in a manner where it leads its peers. Typically, for companies to do that, they have to know what their customers need, and secondly, they need to have great cultures of innovation that are very transparent and very agile. 

WF: How can companies start innovating and see actual returns or impact from these activities?

Assad: Organizations need to first think through where they need to innovate. What is their desired end state, and how quickly do they need to get there? Is it new products? Is it new services? Is it a new business model? Is it digitizing their processes to move more quickly? Or a combination thereof?

To get that vision, they need to reach an agreement among the executive staff and articulate it to their workforce and external partners. It’s important to articulate it so often and so fervently that executives feel nauseated by talking about it. And when you’re nauseated talking about it, then they have made a good first step. 

The next thing is to share data on new technologies, social-economic trends, and marketing trends with the workforce and external partners, who can also be customers. Invite employees and partners to get involved. Executives have to make sure that their middle management is on board with this and that they will be leaders who will entertain questioning and allow people to collaborate, go off on their own, come up with something and experiment. They need to have a well-known process to move ideas forward. Everyone has to know that process, and it has to be credible. Meaning, everybody that makes a suggestion is going to get a response. It might be yes, It might be no and here’s why. 

Finally, organizations have to overcome what I like to call, the graveyard of innovation. And that is to get your organization’s attention to commercialize your innovation. Different functions like marketing, sales, manufacturing, service centers, and quality assurance are all focused on making the numbers for this quarter. You have to work very hard to get their attention to produce this new innovative product and develop a market for it.. That’s very different from what all those functions do for a mature,  profitable product. 

WF: Innovation takes time and resources. What return or value can organizations gain with innovation activities?

Victor Assad

Assad: At Innovation One, we have an index that measures innovation. And organizations that score on the top quartile have 22 percent higher financial measures like profit.

In addition, they attract the best talent. They lead in the market. And when they keep these cultures going, they have all sorts of significant financial returns and other good things that happen to them. 


WF: Are there certain types of technology that can help with innovation?

Assad: Every company these days needs to be a digital company. Helpful technologies include big data analysis, (true) artificial intelligence, digital project management software, and chatbots to accelerate communications. Coronavirus, the digital era, our politics have exposed every organization’s weak points. And the first ones to figure out the new normal are going to be the winners as we re-emerge. 

Remote work and the pandemic uncovered that there’s a false narrative about innovation — which is you have to work together, face to face, to be innovative and collaborative. While there are advantages to that, you can also do it digitally. There are tools for whiteboarding, internal crowdsourcing, and project management. I’ve been to virtual meetings where you have 60 people, and you can all go into digital breakrooms and come back as if you’ve had a day at a conference. 

According to a study from McKinsey, companies that lead in adapting these digitization tools, not just in R&D, but in sales, marketing, supply chain and across the HR platform — the early movers get the best returns. 

WF: How can organizations find the right type of technology to invest in?

Assad: Artificial intelligence and digital technology are tools, not a strategy. What’s important for the chief people officer and the executive team is to determine what’s important for talent strategy in the workforce. Do you want to get rid of all the paperwork and have more digital streams of information? Terrific. Prioritize that.

The advice that I would give is to only buy digital tools that are 80 percent out of the box. Don’t buy something that they say would be under development and given to you in three months by the time they will launch it for you. Buy 80 percent out of the box and go in there knowing the criteria for your needs, whether it be to improve your recruiting, talent management, driving out bias, or improving diversity and inclusion. 

Companies need to be very good at using an approach to involve the workers to put in place new technology. Digitization efforts may fail, and technology may not be used broadly when there’s a lack of worker involvement and  collaborative culture. 


WF: Is there a connection with HR or workforce management tools and how innovative an organization is?

Assad: Yes, there is. HR has the same tools that have been available to different functions like sales and marketing and R&D. It’s time HR use those same tools to build an employee brand for new employees and current employees. These tools are data analysis, artificial intelligence and chatbots.

Technology now can help in finding, tracking, and screening the best talent without bias. 

So what’s the leading cause of bias in the hiring process? The human being. So human beings have an incredible amount of unconscious bias that is there to protect us. It may be something we experienced. It may be something that we have been taught as children or culturally taught.

But research shows that we make decisions in five minutes about somebody, and we spend the rest of the interview trying to verify that decision we made. And you need to break that. A great way to break that is through a structured interview where you’re going to see if somebody has the competencies you need on the job. You need to be trained to interview this way. 

Another way is to use artificial intelligence before the interview. There are tools that go on the internet, and they take the competencies that you need and find those who exhibited those competencies by where they worked or what they put on their online resume. This is very different technology than  a LinkedIn  or an Indeed search. 

The artificial intelligence technology ranks results from top to bottom candidates. It gives you the ranking, but you don’t see a job candidate picture. You don’t see a name until you’ve picked a group of candidates based on the competency and experience matching. And then, you can unblind it, learn more about the job candidates, and reach out to them. 

It’s not going to protect unconscious bias in the interview. Hopefully, structured interviews will. It’s also actually fantastic for matching people who are already in your applicant tracking system but haven’t applied for a job opening. It can find that talent in an instant where a recruiter would be hunting for many hours inside their applicant tracking system.

Another area where technology can help is by quickly providing information to staff. Most HR (and IT) organizations get the same 20 questions regardless of the company. A chatbot can answer these common questions, like when does open enrollment begin? How do I get into a VPN when I have lost my code? Where do I get information about onboarding? Chatbots or intelligent digital assistants curate these data and enable employees to find answers quickly in Teams or Slack, allowing HR staff to focus on other matters. 

These technologies can foster innovation from the get-go by helping find the right talent. While others equip them to have easy access to information, allowing them more time to focus on activities for innovation. 


WF: Culture is an essential element in innovation. Why is it necessary, and how can companies foster that?

Assad: Without innovation companies will fall behind the competition in our fast changing, digital world. Protecting the status quo is a sure bet for failure. The empirical evidence shows that companies seldom become innovative from one great idea or technology. It takes a culture of innovation. Innovation requires an evolution of ideas that are continually developed by their workforces and external partners, aligned to common goals. Executives foster this by continually articulating their strategies for innovation, deploying innovation goals, sharing competitive information, promoting real time learning, inviting employees to suggest ideas and collaborate, and providing an easy and well known process to advance ideas, prototype, collect data, and make decisions rapidly.  

A lot of organizations these days have only a compliance culture. Do what I tell you to do and don’t ask questions. Companies employ this to assure goal attainment, quality and reliability because nobody wants a pacemaker that won’t work. No one wants to fly on a jet where the engine is going to conk out. We need to have good reliability. 

Companies can have both predictable quarterly results and innovation. It is a matter of focus. HR has a big role in this culture change by realigning the goal setting and performance management systems to motivate and reward innovation and quarterly goal achievement. When executives prioritize excellence for this quarter’s goals and their best innovation projects, great business outcomes are achieved. 


Jana Reserva is a content manager for Workforce.com.

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