Thoughts on HR and Creating a Culture of Innovation Within Companies

By Janet Wiscombe

Feb. 2, 2007

At a time when the concept of creating cultures of innovation has become the focus of major conferences and endless ink, the question of HR’s role in fostering creativity is up for grabs. Several leading scholars weigh in on the subject:

  • Vijay Govindarajan, professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business and author of Ten Rules for Strategic Innovators: From Idea to Execution:

“Today, innovation is not synonymous with technology. If it is embedded in the organization, even the person in the mailroom is part of innovation. HR is very critical to developing an innovative culture, but the people in HR don’t play the right role. They create processes. They are viewed as a nuisance. The new role of HR is going to be as global talent scout and to work with the chief learning officer. That is critical.”

  • Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at Stanford University and author of Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management:

“Rewiring a company for creativity and growth isn’t just about technology, it’s about how to do job better and how to get the best out of everyone. It’s about winning the battle, and you can’t have too many bystanders. You must get everyone involved. Google has an amazing culture because everyone has ideas and makes suggestions.”

“One problem in writing about HR and innovation is that HR people are the least creative people in the organization. HR is into rules. They are the ones who say, ‘No, you can’t break this rule.’ This, of course, is the opposite of building a culture of creativity.”

  • Philippe Baumard, visiting professor at the Hass School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. Baumard studies innovation:

“HR needs to focus on people who can think about destruction. They must hire people who can make radical and rapid change. Today, 90 percent of organizations change their core activity in 15 years on average. It’s a much shorter cycle than it used to be. Companies have to avoid hiring people who look like them or have the same background or came from the same university.”

“Harley-Davidson would have died, but it woke up at the right time. It hired people with a passion for the products—people who understood customer service and could think creatively. It’s HR’s job to find these people and watch over them and keep track of them. They must bring new skills and be people who have handled real situations before successfully in different industries.”

“You can train for creativity by rewarding innovation. Most employees are afraid of the consequences if they say too much. When there’s fear of the boss, there’s no creative magic. To reinvent an organization, you have to have all kinds of talent and you must have the right quantity—maybe 10 percent—of people capable of making radical change.”

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