By Ed Frauenheim
Jan. 17, 2013
Despite the fact that company executives call innovation one of their highest priorities, cultivating innovation is not a top goal when it comes to managing the workforce, a recent survey reveals.
What’s more, 4 in 10 organizations see themselves as ineffective at fostering innovation, and there’s a mismatch between what companies are doing to promote inventiveness and what they say is effective.
These are among the findings of the 2012 Workforce Innovation Survey. The survey, which solicited information from human resources officials, HR executives and other company leaders, suggests many organizations have a ways to go when it comes to cooking up creativity.
Many observers call innovation a crucial ingredient for the 21st century economy. As product cycles spin faster, customer expectations rise and global competition ramps up. Indeed, 9 out of 10 survey respondents expect that fostering innovation will increase in importance over the next five years. But many workforce leaders in our survey are frustrated by the state of their firm’s innovation efforts. One respondent suggested a bunker mentality persists at that person’s organization in the wake of the Great Recession. “During an economic downturn, survival is 100% everyone’s focus,” the respondent wrote. “No funds or tolerance from investors or senior management to innovate and try new things even if they will ultimately generate positive revenue to the bottom line.”
Three of the other top-ranking workforce goals do contribute indirectly to innovation: leadership development, recruitment and retention. Still, the middle-of-the-road showing of promoting innovation as an explicit goal contrasts with the priorities voiced by company leaders in the CEO Challenge 2012 report published by research firm The Conference Board. In that study of global leaders, innovation ranked as the top challenge.
The U.S.-specific findings in the report also show a greater concern for innovation than is reflected in the Workforce survey, in which the majority of respondents were from U.S-based organizations. The Conference Board discovered that U.S. executives ranked innovation as the third most important challenge after government regulation and global political and economic risk.
Nearly 60 percent of respondents to our survey said their organizations were effective at fostering innovation among employees. The remaining 40 percent felt the opposite, judging their organizations’ innovation-cultivation efforts to be ineffective.
Those findings dovetail with a disconnect we discovered between what companies are doing on the innovation front and what they say works. When asked about which strategy to encourage innovation among employees is most effective, respondents ranked these approaches as the top three:
But when asked about which strategies they are actually using, giving employees autonomy to pursue ideas ranked just fourth.
Why aren’t more companies applying the lessons of Google Inc. and other companies that provide employees with freedom to tinker with their own projects? One possible explanation is that workforces are stretched thin these days. “Budget constraints and downsizing have increased individual workloads, meaning that innovation is not at the forefront of priorities for most staff,” a survey respondent said. “The conundrum is that if more innovation could be implemented, staff could work smarter, not harder, but with current workloads few staff have the time to ponder or develop new ways of doing things.”
Another potential reason companies are not carving out time for independent projects is that managers may not trust that employees will use free time wisely. One survey respondent suggested that workers need guidance on the path to inventiveness. “Helping employees ‘learn’ to learn and think outside the box is a big transition for most,” the respondent wrote. “Long-term employees in particular have to have support to get to the point of being able to participate in innovation, particularly when they have not seen it in their prior years of employment.”
Perhaps another factor behind companies making less-than-ideal decisions about how to cultivate creativity is that innovation initiatives often are not measured. Just 16 percent of respondents said they have a way of quantifying the level of innovation at their organization.
Overall, the survey offers a portrait of discombobulated innovation efforts. “It’s not really structured and organized,” one respondent wrote, “So it’s more a matter of luck whether innovation takes place.”
Ed Frauenheim is Workforce’s senior editor. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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