28th September 2018
One of the great challenges faced in highly competitive business environments is the need to constantly innovate. Technology is advancing at a dizzying rate and no matter how innovative and effective our product or services are today, businesses have to consider their version of tomorrow, too. But how best to do this? The answer might lie closer to home than you think.
It is now an accepted truth that the key asset of any business is its employees, properly engaging them can be the most powerful source of competitive advantage for a company. Innovation and employee engagement intersect if we think of “open innovation”. A concept originally developed by Henry Chesbrough, the idea is based on the increasingly interconnected and distributed nature of knowledge. In Chesbrough’s model, new ideas are sourced outside and inside the company to innovate in its in-house and external business environments. In this context, engaged employees are the key holders of knowledge and ideas. If placed in the right environment, they can provide a new and uniquely critical source of internally-developed ideas. And if business leaders encourage, listen, assess and develop these ideas, they have a contented, valued workforce as well as innovative ways to improve the business at all levels, from internal processes and structures to what to sell, how and to whom.
There are many open innovation examples, some obviously more successful than others so it is essential to involve professionals with the right innovation skills who know how to create innovative employee engagement ideas. For employees to buy into the concept, it is crucial to ensure that their motivation, commitment and ability to support the business depends on a number of key factors. Employees need to feel that there is trust, honesty and transparency among them and the management, that there is a positive and supporting environment, that achievements are rewarded, and that there is scope for learning and career progression.
Engaged employees can sustain success of the business because they consider themselves not just in it, but also of it; they feel emotionally and personally connected, they believe in the organisation and in its mission. They realise that they are being heard, that their experience and knowledge is valued, that their contribution can directly benefit not only themselves but also their colleagues, the organisation and, maybe, the wider society.
The truth of the matter is, all businesses are at a cross-road: embrace this new approach of leveraging employee engagement as one of the key innovation steps required to succeed, or risk marginalisation from companies that decide to take it seriously. But businesses are warned not to rush in. Effective employee engagement strategies require a bespoke approach shaped around the needs of the organisation.
If implemented carefully, results can be seen at all levels, increased productivity and higher quality output, retention of key skills and knowledge, more effective partnership with suppliers and stronger relationship with end users.
Another outcome is a stronger brand image from positive feedback both internally and externally. This is because not only customers will be better served but staff will also become a stronger advocate with potentially future recruits. Information and opinions are today shared quickly and widely through social media, and having current and past employees giving good reviews on the company can also increasingly be a source of competitive advantage. There is obviously the need to assess how well employees feel engaged and, when new engagement strategies are implemented, measure the effect on employees. For this, best tool is employee surveys which allow senior management to not only understand how employees feel about their role, company leadership, working environment, career potential and so on, but also to get new ideas on how to improve the engagement strategy itself, as well as on how to achieve the organisation’s strategic goals. There is also the need to measure innovation rate and ensure the approach is effective. Linking corporate culture and innovation is vital. If effectively done, this can support a sustainable innovation continuous improvement process that will hugely benefit the business in the short as well as in the long term. If ignored, it is at your peril.
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