Beyond big science and beanbags

Written by John McGurk on 1 May 2013 in Features

John McGurk examines how learning really drives innovation

The need to innovate has become a modern day management and policy mantra. But most discussion of innovation in management and policy circles has been focused towards what we call 'big science' and 'beanbags'.

These are two extremes of innovation. At one extreme it's all about huge capital investment, inventing new gadgets and forging new technologies1. At the other end of the spectrum it's about creativity, improvisation and thinking outside the proverbial box. Innovation is, of course, much more than that and a growing wave of research is explaining why innovation is all about people capabilities and culture. That creates a big role for HR and the learning function2.

A very tangible fact

Here's a little known fact that should be branded on the brain of every learning and development specialist: when you look at spending on 'intangibles' (accountancy-speak for outputs you can't drop on your foot), organisations  spend more on developing people and transforming themselves than they do on inventing new products and new gadgets. The latter so-called R&D spending accounts for only 13 per cent of intangible investment, compared to 41 per cent spent on developing people3.

These findings from the government body for science and innovation, NESTA, should give us both a warm glow and a wakeup call. The warm glow should come from the news that learning and organisational effectiveness is as much an aspect of innovation as the smartphone or the super-duper vacuum cleaner. The wakeup call is this: we don't pay enough attention in HR and L&D to how that sort of spending actually helps propel innovation.

It's an insight that many have, of course, already identified but, at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, we felt it needed to be developed further. We conducted a major research project with the University of Bath resulting in four key reports, based on survey data and six case studies covering the private and public sector. These reports get behind the wiring of how L&D and HR support innovation.

In this article I outline our take on innovation based on the research, but the reports give much further detail4.

We found that innovation is essentially about three key things:

  • ensuring people have the skills and capabilities to innovate
  • encouraging people to connect with each other and share knowledge
  • providing people with the supporting organisational structures and culture to help them achieve this.

Learning is pivotal to innovation

The role of learning is critical to innovation. To find out more about this, the CIPD's Learning and Talent Development Survey in 2012 asked L&D professionals about a range of innovation behaviours and approaches5. The data allowed us to analyse how innovation is perceived by L&D professionals, and how they view their own contribution to innovation. The survey enabled us to identify the three Ds that contribute to an organisation's approach to innovation:

  • drivers The approach to innovation and how it is delivered
  • development The way learning and talent development helps shape and support innovation
  • demographics The industry size, sector and location dimensions which affect how innovation is delivered.

There are, of course, many other dimensions to innovation and learning but our research gives us some deep insight into how L&D specialists perceive innovation and creativity within their own organisations. Based on these drivers, we were able to classify organisations according to five different 'innovation profiles', set out in the box above on the right.

Formal learning: New fuel for innovation?

Sometimes you need to tap new sources of insight and knowledge to move the innovation needle. This shows a pressing need to develop the skills required for innovation and transformation. The use of formal education courses, including continuous professional development and short university courses as well as MBAs and specialist masters qualifications, was therefore rated highly across all five 'innovation profiles'.

It will be interesting to see how new formal learning formats such as Massive Online Open Courses will contribute to that picture. These are now available to learn about everything from gamification to genetics. Whether these will create a new form of learning fuel for innovation remains to be seen.

Leadership can block and enable innovation

Having leaders who can promote and support innovative and creative behaviour helps employees to buy in to innovation, so the leadership and management of innovation is paramount.

Our survey research shows that all but the very smallest organisations report a significant deficit in leadership and management skills. However, organisations across all five innovation profiles record a lower than average deficit in leadership and management skills. Our case study research indicates the importance of leadership to developing innovation6. The importance of senior leadership was illustrated across all of our case studies. Leaders need to learn if they are to lead effectively so we noticed that 'open innovators' had the highest intention of carrying out leadership development activities over the next year.

Talent management can turn on innovation

Talent management was also an issue highlighted by the innovation profiles.  There is strong but varying engagement with talent management across all five profiles: only about 30 per cent of cautious innovators have a talent management programme compared to about 55 per cent for our survey respondents generally.

The open and specialist innovators have the highest incidence of using talent management. They focus most on both high potentials and future leaders. This might help to overcome some of the leadership deficits identified earlier. Other profiles focus on developing high-potential talent, which can help build the capability for innovation. Building an innovation culture early among high potentials and fore leaders can have real impact downstream.

The key learning, leadership and talent management approaches identified in our profiles give us a great insight into what works in an innovation context and what does not. It helps us understand how critical leadership and management are, and pinpoints the key learning initiatives that support the innovation imperative.

So what doesn't work for innovation?

It's also important to note the interventions rated as less effective when we explored the innovation profiles. They were:

  • in-house development comes out below 2 per cent in learning effectiveness, with barely a discernible bar in the chart from any profile
  • internal knowledge-sharing events are also rated very low, registering an effectiveness rating of just 10 per cent, or barely a tenth of the rating given to job rotation. This appears counterintuitive, given the importance of knowledge-sharing, but it's hardly surprising given that innovation is generally an outward-focused activity in most cases
  • coaching either externally or by line managers is also poorly rated across all five innovation profiles. Just over a tenth feel that coaching delivered either externally or by line managers is effective in delivering learning, though there are some slight differences. Again, this contrasts with the general survey responses from which the data is drawn.

Importantly, innovation-friendly learning approaches tend not to mirror the approaches used in general L&D as indicated in terms of the top three choices for respondents of our 2012 L&TD survey. In-house development, internal knowledge-sharing and coaching by line managers did not feature at all in our profiles. We surmise that this is because innovation needs to be outward-, not inward-, focused and, in general, L&TD approaches are focused internally.

Connecting and collaborating

It's something of a management cliché that organisations don't talk to each other nearly enough. That's damaging enough for routine business but, when we are seeking to innovate and transform, it's vital that people share and connect. Collaboration and knowledge sharing are behaviours we need to encourage.

Job rotation, job rotation, job rotation!

A clear favourite among all five profiles is job rotation, secondment and shadowing - more than half of respondents in all profiles favour this method for learning. The reason is clear: it actively encourages people to think outside their occupational boxes and exposes them to new learning. Employees are more likely to swap and to share experience and co-invent new ways of doing things.

Getting people from HR to work in marketing and vice versa can release a lot of new thinking, as can putting one or two IT people into corporate communications and vice versa. Even shadowing and secondments into 'foreign departments' can release a lot of innovation energy.

It's also important for people to connect outside the organisation and with customers and suppliers in order to find new ways of working across teams.

Getting systematic

The more innovation can become part of systems and structures the better it is for collaboration. Encouraging strong connections across teams and departments ensures that we tap into ideas and insights across the organisation. Getting customers and suppliers involved offers a whole new dimension. The right systems and processes, from reward and recognition to ICT systems that allow knowledge sharing, are also vital.

Looking at innovation from a project and programme management perspective is crucial. This helps to embed innovation as a team activity and builds visibility within the organisation. Getting systematic is crucial but the final piece of the jigsaw is working at creating cultures of innovation.

Supportive organisational culture: The scaffolding of innovation

Just as scaffolding helps construction workers work safely and efficiently at height, we need scaffolding to support innovation. Employees need to be encouraged and empowered to take proportionate risks and they will only do this if issues like trust, engagement and employee voice are in place. Culture really matters.

Give employees a say and a voice

Just asking employees to contribute ideas can release a huge amount of innovation. We have all heard how bosses in 'back to the floor' programmes suddenly get a spark of inspiration from being on the tools or behind the counter. It's as though what happens beyond the C-suite is a mystery to them. Many still only really use experts and technical specialists as the innovators and expect employees to be the implementers.

Trust employees to innovate

It's futile seeking to tap employee insight for innovation if trust has been ruptured. For employee involvement to catch fire, we need to build high-trust relationships. We can go a long way by taking a fresh look at trust as the CIPD's research report Where has all the trust gone? showed7. Sunderland City Council, one of our case studies, built trust with employees about job security into an innovation bargain, which unleashed a great deal of new thinking, by offering job (not role) security in return for constant flexibility in service delivery.

Build time and space to innovate

Many point to the fact that Google allows its employees to spend a fifth of the week innovating. However, for other organisations, such an approach would not bear fruit. Our research shows that, even in the most innovative of organisations, fewer than ten per cent allocate specific blocks of time, such as 'one day a week', for innovation.

It's important to think of your own context, asking questions such as what does innovation look like in a consumer goods business, or in a credit agency, or in a transport warehouse? How can we shape learning to that vital objective? How can we get people connecting and collaborating? How do we develop the specific skills to practice innovation, and how can we make innovation more systematic?

Conclusion and practice recommendations

Our research and analysis has given us a richer and deeper picture of how innovation happens and what HR and L&D can do to power it. In summary, organisations need to:

  • establish the need for innovation and examine the phase of innovation towards which they wish to develop
  • keep an eye on the specific skills and capabilities required relevant to their industry and situation
  • understand the importance of talent development as a way of driving the innovation imperative forward
  • foster collaboration and knowledge sharing as a key resource of innovation
  • build a culture of trust and engagement to oil the wheels of innovation
  • tap employee insight as a source of constant innovation.

Innovation is really about learning, collaboration, structures and culture. Putting these together in a way that fits the organisation and its people will release the spark of innovation, and will get us away from the extremes of big science and beanbags.

Further reading

Chesbrough H J Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology Harvard Business School Press (2003)

Christensen C The Innovators' Dilemma: Why New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail Harvard Business School Press (2000)

Field S, Franklin M Report from the Second Survey of Investment in Intangibles Office for National Statistics (2010)

Hamel G What Matters Now: How to Win In a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition and Unstoppable Innovation Jossey Bass (2012)

Senior R "The Unreasonable Power of Creativity: How Ideas are Crucial to a More Positive Future" Strategic Direction vol 29:2 (2013)

Shipton H A New Model for Learning Organisations presented at ESRC seminar HRM and Exploratory Learning, Lancaster University Management School (26th February 2013)

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

John McGurk is adviser: learning and talent at the Chartered Institute of Personel and Development. He can be contacted via

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