The Role of HR in Fostering Innovative Cultures

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HR is largely responsible for shaping the organization’s culture. In those situations where the HR function assumes more strategic tasks, this challenge becomes critical. As this is a cross function serving the people in the organization, HR managers are in a privileged position to build the organization’s culture and to act as its architects.

When undertaking the task of creating and maintaining the desired corporate culture, it’s worth remembering that creativity and business innovation have become increasingly important key indicators for performance, success and growth in the long term. Hence, corporate culture must be able to make room for innovation.

This requires deep understanding of the characteristic elements of an innovative culture. With this awareness, it’s easier to hire the right creative talent who must be able to nurture this culture. Without ignoring that once in the company, this talent must be developed, managed and recognized for innovation to become part of the company’s DNA.

Fostering a culture of innovation requires various bits to be aligned, while considering how they all fit together. It makes little sense to carry out separate actions. Each bit is part of a system that ultimately creates a culture, an environment, where innovation can thrive.

There’s no right way to create a culture that embraces innovation; there’s no universal recipe for creating an innovative culture. However, there are key elements that lead to achieving this goal. In short, it can be asserted that although each innovative culture is different, they are created out of some common elements.

When making the decision to start a process to integrate innovation into the existing culture, it’s important to bear in mind that fostering a culture of innovation involves constant renewal. It’s not something that happens every now and then; instead this is an on-going process. Once this process has started, not only will this entails undertaking actions needed to maintain the culture, but it may also be necessary to make changes to make the culture evolve.

One thing I recommend when it comes to fostering innovative cultures–both at the onset of this process and in more advanced phases—is to pose questions on promoting innovation in relation to the HR function. It is a good way to take the pulse of the company’s culture of innovation and to see which areas the HR function should focus on.

  • Is the importance of innovation constantly communicated?
  • Do leaders lead by example when demanding innovative behaviour?
  • Do managers take on the responsibility of breaking down organizational barriers that hinder innovation?
  • Is innovation on the agenda at regular meetings?
  • Are we specifically hiring creative people who can contribute to promoting an innovative culture?
  • Are we creating an environment which makes people feel comfortable to take risks?
  • Do we offer training and development in creative skills?
  • Do we reward and recognize innovation?
  • Does our performance appraisal system include innovation?
  • Are we cultivating a fun work environment?
  • Do we have workspaces that stimulate creative thinking?
  • Do we encourage initiatives that increase people’s autonomy and eliminate unnecessary controls?
  • Is innovation boosted or restricted by HR?
  • Does HR drive innovation? Do we consider ourselves innovative?

Perhaps the last point is the most important one of all these questions. This isn’t just about fostering an innovative culture and removing organizational barriers that prevent innovation from becoming part of the company’s DNA. For this to be credible, the HR function must also be innovative in how it achieves its goals. This may open new possibilities for reinventing obsolete practices, adopting new ones, and of course, it helps to reinforce the message.

Let’s remind ourselves that, despite what some are advocating, innovation is not simply related to disruptive technologies or next-generation products. Innovation is about generating new value. Therefore, anything that’s new and generates impact can be considered an innovation. This includes all internal practices that the HR function can use to achieve its goals. In this particular case, the goal is none other than to create the circumstances for innovation to become part of the company’s culture.

This, after setting down the goals and specific characteristics of the innovative culture to be developed with steps to follow, in order to achieve these goals, it’s highly recommended that HR seeks out mechanisms that bring innovation into the company’s DNA. These mechanisms ought to be new ones in many instances, since HR has developed their practices in an environment focused on efficiency and rendering them more often than not inadequate, and even counterproductive, for nurturing innovation.

Innovative practices cover everything from simple things such as integrating innovation into the performance appraisal system, to elements as complex as creating ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment) models. In companies adopting this model, the people can do what they want and when they want to, so long as the work is done. That implies that there are no vacations and people are trusted.

In short, as innovation has been identified as a critical competence in many organizations, it is HR’s responsibility to proactively work to get the people within the organization to develop this competency. Obviously, all this must be done under top management’s guiding hand. However, HR cannot lead this transformation, if the function doesn’t apply its own recommendation and practice what it preaches: innovate in order to foster an innovative culture.

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