Creating and shaping more innovative HR services
By Ed Bernacki
While everyone likes to think of themselves as being innovative, what are you doing to make your work innovative? In interviews with HR managers, I ask what makes their work innovative. I am told of mission statements or company values that talk about innovation. What I rarely hear are the strategies or programs that help build the capacity of HR to innovate.
The irony is that talking about innovation and expecting to be innovative is as effective as talking about physical fitness and expecting to be fit. Talking may provide the incentive and conviction to act but it is not an action. One response I often hear is, “Our organization is investing in new technology.” I interpret this as, “I am investing in running shoes to be more physically fit.” The shoes do not make you fit any more than technology makes you innovative— it’s what you do with them that gets results.
HR can play a crucial role to focus on the need for innovation in the way we manage people. This area is often overlooked and worse, trivialized as the soft stuff. Yet our internal processes, structures and strategies for people are crucial to profitably deliver the products and services of the business. It starts by investing one of the most valuable resources we have—time—to consider how we can shape more innovative HR services.
For HR to lead, begin by answering these questions:
• Where does the organization need new ideas for processes or programs to be more successful?
• What are the HR challenges facing your organization?
• What resources can you harness to focus on these challenges?
Recognizing that we cannot solve all problems at once, how can we spread your challenges over the next 12 months to create a plan for change and improvements in HR?
Create opportunities to innovate
An example of an organization that creates opportunities to innovate HR practices is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It created an HR Process Lab to foster more creativity in HR management. There are two parts of the HR Process Lab. Each helps to balance the need to identify process improvements and the need for systematic, longer-term change.
Innovation Experiments: Managers can try new ways of carrying out HR actions such as staffing, recruitment or learning. This effort is seen as an experiment to model a new approach. HR advisors are assigned to work with the manager to provide advice so they see the risks, advantages and limitations of their options. Managers must act within their authority, and must uphold laws, collective agreements and values. Afterward, they report what they did to show what was learned.
Invention Sessions: If a manager is facing a specific challenge, they can ask for help to solve the problem. A group of people will be assembled to brainstorm new ideas for the challenge. The team also helps with identifying the actions and steps to bring the change into reality. Ideas are shared so that best practices can be used by others and to further an innovative culture.
Managing people and ideas
The essence of HR is the effective management of people. Yet the research suggests that the most innovative organizations also develop an expertise in management of ideas and how they flow through an organization. Numerous studies on innovation find that the top performers focus on developing capabilities to turn their ideas into action via well defined idea management processes, for example:
• Seek ideas and knowledge widely from customers, suppliers, employees, other industries and competitors.
• Allow ideas and knowledge captured to be shared, stored in user-friendly form, and made freely accessible.
• Actively encourage diversity of viewpoint, talent and expertise.
• Delay the premature evaluation of new ideas by giving managers considerable discretion to pursue ideas without subjecting them to a formal appraisal.
A key aspect of these policies is to create opportunities for individuals and groups to collaborate to solve difficult challenges.
Focus training on tools for innovative thinking
Communications theorist and educator, Marshal McLuhan once said, “We shape our tools and they in turn shape us.” So what tools do you use to shape your thinking to be innovative? A place to begin is to focus on your skills (and those of your HR team) to solve problems and make effective decisions. The research on how we solve problems as teams does not paint a pretty picture of our effectiveness.
The most common findings are:
• We get the definition of the problem wrong the first time—then we invest in fixing the solution.
• We quickly jump to a solution based on experience instead of exploring more effective ideas.
• We fail to notice the spin-off problem: the impact of one solution often creates another problem.
This is normal and we should anticipate these future challenges.
• We wait for a precipitating event—a crisis—before we decide to act.
The challenge to consider is how HR can improve problem solving in your organization by focusing on improving decision making.
Make innovation an organization value but…
I recently met with a government department that lists innovation as one of its values. I asked the HR managers in this meeting, “What does innovation means to you?” They could not articulate an answer. For example, what would I do differently if I bring a sense of innovation to my work? To shape a more innovative organization, start with some simple and clear ideas for all staff that helps them to understand what it means to be innovative. Your future could depend upon it.
Ed Bernacki is the founder of the Idea Factory, a firm designed to help people and organizations build innovation capacity to innovate.
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