Innovate or die: that's the battle cry

Firms often overlook the human side of the equation when it comes to introducing new ways of working, says Roger Trapp
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Innovation is all the rage these days. Politicians, business leaders and management gurus are united behind one mantra: innovate or die.

Of course, much of this excitement is down to the fact that an increasing proportion of business these days is high-tech. And in that kind of business - where personal computer models, for instance, are quickly supplanted by new ones - innovation is a fact of life. But people are realising that it is not just about producing new things; it can also lead to the production of new ways of doing things. The only problem is that innovation is not much more prevalent now than it was a while ago. Sure, organisations will often announce how they have introduced an "innovatory" this or that, but rarely can they claim to have set up anything systemic.

According to Professor Michael West of the Economic and Social Research Council's centre for organisation and innovation, the issue is a lack of appropriate human resources policies. "Everybody has the capacity to be creative at work but surprisingly little is done in practical terms to encourage this. The human part of the equation is often looked upon by management as problematic, risky, messy and too burdensome in terms of time and money, yet it is precisely this aspect that is the cornerstone of all good inventions and work practices," he says. Studies conducted by his team in 120 different organisations show that many do not have specialist personnel staff, training strategies or policies on job rotation and have low levels of skills requirements, with the result that innovation is infrequent, Professor West told the British Association annual festival of science last month.

He believes that psychology can offer help in maximising the potential of individuals, teams and organisations. For instance, various characteristics of a job, such as the variety and level of skill required, the significance of the task and the opportunity offered for discretional judgments, can have an impact on how well an individual can function creatively within it. Pointing out that team work is one solution that is slowly catching on in UK companies, he nevertheless stresses that more work needs to be done on helping managers develop efficient team working.

On the organisational front, management infrastructures can play an important role in fostering innovation, adds Professor West, pointing to active support from the top down, inter-departmental communication and co-ordination, an emphasis on quality improvement and employee participation as all being necessary prerequisites. "It is not enough for organisations to pay lip service to the idea of innovation without them being prepared to do a fundamental review of how they operate and how jobs are done. Every employee can bring added value to a company provided that the systems used allow it," he concludes.