What’s HR got to do with Innovation anyway?

Let’s start with the increasing strategic role of the human resources function. It is trite that the human resources function has been in a state of effluxion over the last decade and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. The question of what the full maturity of the function will be is a question to be examined another day, but as organizations increasingly realize the symbiosis between the human resources function and attainment of organizational goals, the more the value of this function is understood and better aligned. From my experience with human resources management practice over the years, this one sentence paints the picture of the true value of the function for me: 

To achieve the person-organization fit for the attainment of organizational goals. Finding this utopia and everything that happens in between is pretty much the business of HR.

The Human Resources division has to work with business leaders to establish how to blend its activities with the organizational strategy and approach. The department is tasked with owning and championing initiatives to manage employees to achieve organizational growth. Obviously a vast majority of activities come in here from change management, to culture programs, process re-engineering, digitization programs, people management and development, strategy crafting and cascade, etc. 

Each example of activity mentioned is towards organizational growth and involves people, thus the need for human resource management. If we examine each activity, we can easily see why the human resources function would be required to drive any of them. 

This article will touch briefly on the increasing strategic role of the human resources function in an organization, and sensitize the reader on the role of the function in innovation in an organization. Where possible, examples will be drawn from an African perspective, and focus will be placed on less obvious areas. 

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The Expansion of the HR Role

As said earlier, the human resources function is evident in everything in between managing people for strategic organizational growth and advancement. A few examples have been cited above. Contrast this with the early post-colonial era in Nigeria, where HR was known as personnel management and was involved only in administrative record keeping and pay roll services. Totally lacking in strategic talent management, promotions were based purely on tenure (public sector example) from one grade level to another, relying on record keeping information from the personnel department stored in manual forms. Information from public service commission Anambra State.

Today with HR analytics (another topic for further x-ray), the direct impact of the HR function on the bottom line is real and measurable.

Why Innovation?

First of all, innovation is the life of businesses. Phrases like “innovate or die”, “innovate or go home” are based on the hard core truth (remember Kodak, disruptions to economic landscape by technology and business innovations, Uber, Airbnb, online shopping etc). In Nigeria the FMCGs have gone from manual production factories to automated factories, and now to solar energy powered and fully automated factories. This impacts bottom line, sets the companies who have these ahead of their peers, creates competition and disrupts the operating environment.

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If innovation is this critical to businesses and business strategies are achieved by people, how then can we innovate without people? Who is best poised to manage people for business advancement? Who then should be at the centre of an innovation culture? 

Tips for a Successful Innovation Culture or Program

Social interactions birth business ideas, relationships, communication, anything at all. This is not some text book script, take a few minutes to reflect on this. Any process engineering, ideas, plans, etc, stem from social exchange. How is your organization structured to encourage and draw from social interactions of and from employees?

Where is accountability and responsibility for innovation in your organization? Beyond drawing up innovation policies and programs, there are a few other subtle ways the human resources function can entrench innovation as a way of life in an organization.

1. Create the right atmosphere for social interactions that can birth innovation, free exchange of ideas, communication, relationships, etc. Do not let seas of innovations reside only in your employees’ minds and heads. Draw from that well and tap as much as possible.

2. Train your employees to overcome social ineffectiveness whether by support programs to develop these skills (and so give more beyond their role requirement), formal trainings, or coaching. Research has proven that with the right atmosphere and stimuli every human being is capable of birthing new ideas.

3. Make innovation safe! Your environment must assure employees that they are safe to innovate as not all innovations may go well. What is the reward and effect of failed innovations? Shape this by your organizational response to either, driven by the human resources function. TaTa as an organization presents awards for innovations that were not a commercial success! The award is called “dare to try”. MTN Nigeria allows employees to see and admit personal gaps and celebrate unsuccessful attempts through its employee development program, in an effort to encourage individuals to try again.

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4. Innovation doesn’t start with idea generation but rather problem identification! Is that a surprise? Has the human resources department created or enabled a customer experience team that focuses on customer needs? It’s a rich source of problems requiring innovative solutions.

5. Has the human resources function incorporated innovation into the everyday roles and lives of employees? Every individual in the organization needs to understand how innovation fits into their roles the way most organizations have succeeded in driving it home that sales fits into every employee’s role. This culture is very common in the banking sector in Nigeria where all functions have sales targets.

In closing, human resources departments cannot simply leave innovation to happen organically or by chance, it is like a crop that needs to be carefully cultivated. Traditional human resources functions of creating systems, policies and processes to support innovation should remain, but beyond these, are less obvious but highly effective steps that HR can take to further entrench innovation in the system.

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