Who Owns Innovation?

While recent surveys show a disconnect between employers and employees regarding innovation, experts say the onus is on both parties to drive creativity.

By Tom Starner

When it comes to workplace innovation, employees and the companies they work for may not agree on who is supposed to make it happen, according to the results of some recent surveys.

Innovation experts say neither side should point a finger as to the reasons why innovation may be dormant, but employers certainly can foster more ways to spark innovation, from creating more diverse or distinct innovation teams to offering technology tools that can help innovative ideas thrive.

In a survey of more than 3,000 employees and hiring managers commissioned by the University of Phoenix, for example, only one in 10 hiring managers say their employees excel at innovation, yet 49 percent see innovation as a very important employee trait.

On the flip side, the survey reports that employers are not doing enough to empower their teams to innovate, with nearly 40 percent of employees reporting they do not have access to the tools they need to innovate.

"There is currently a discrepancy between what hiring managers expect and what employees [might] have access to or be skilled to do," says Ruth Veloria, executive dean at the University of Phoenix's School of Business. "While employers are looking for incoming employees with the necessary skills that fit the job description, they also want employees to demonstrate more than the skills on their resume by coming to the table with new, creative ideas."

In another study, BMC Software polled 3,200 office workers in 12 countries worldwide and found that 88 percent place say the responsibility to create innovative cultures falls on employers. The same survey found that only 64 percent of U.S. participants feel empowered by their company culture to lead innovation.

A third survey, from Softchoice, an IT solutions and managed services provider, found that most North Americans believe their employers and IT teams should be doing more to unleash their ability to innovate. The study, Enabling Innovation: When Actions Speak Louder than Buzzwords, found only 37 percent of employees believe their employers are very innovative.

Willis Towers Watson's Amy Sung, director of its talent and rewards practice in New York, says ownership may be the wrong word regarding innovation strategy.

"Innovation should be shared," she says, adding that HR needs to include innovation as one of the expectations of what type of culture are they trying to foster.

Employees need to feel empowered to innovate, she says, because they're often doing an internal "cost benefit analysis" of their own.

"They're thinking, 'You know, what's the benefit of me doing something different or out of the box? Am I going to be recognized for it, or am I going to be recognized and rewarded for it?' " she says.

It's not enough to throw money at workers to drive innovation, Sung says. For example, employers may create programs that reward workers for the number of patents they generate or secure, or programs designed to spark ideas.

"If you don't have that underlying culture and leadership is really standing by it, with leaders also being role models," Sung says, "then people are just going to say the ramifications of me failing are greater than the tiny, little spot bonus that they're going to deliver. Others may say they have little time for innovation, because they have their regular job to do. One solution is isolating specific employees with one purpose: to innovate.

"Organizations, especially tech companies, are trying to change people being risk-averse by carving out time for people to work on specified, pet projects," she says. "Then, they can celebrate both the learning opportunities [if it doesn't work out] and successes as well . . . celebrating the spirit of innovation."

Baltimore-based Barbara Marder, a senior partner and talent business global innovation leader at Mercer, says her firm is a strong believer in innovation being shared between employer and employee.

"It's definitely on both [sides]," says Marder, adding that innovation is officially designated as a core Mercer value. "We've stated clearly that innovation isn't somebody else's responsibility; it belongs to everyone. I think that's the way you're going to get the good ideas, the new ideas, to bubble up . . . when employees are consistently thinking about ways to do things differently, looking for new experiences that allow them to think differently and bring to clients."

To foster innovation, Mercer offers employees the opportunity to participate in innovation hubs, which are small groups of people who are dedicated full-time to the "revolutionary" types of innovation.

"For true innovation, you do need people who aren't doing it off the side of their desk. It's not something that they try to do in their basements on the weekends," Marder says. "It's their full-time job. They are taken offline and giving the freedom to disconnect from what they were doing before, to not be afraid to fail in terms of bringing ideas forward."

She notes that the heavy workplace infrastructure and the functions and groups that created by employers to protect the core business are necessary, but they don't inspire much revolutionary innovation, much less risk-taking.

"All of those things that have to be there to protect the business during the normal course can really get in the way of innovation," she says. "So, often you need [innovative efforts] to be kind of walled off and separated from the core business for that really revolutionary, disruptive thinking to happen."

As for HR helping employees get into a more innovative mindset in the normal course of the day, the University of Phoenix survey uncovered some ways for employers to bridge the apparent innovation gap. Forty-four percent of employees say access to the latest technology would help them be more innovative in their jobs, while 40 percent would like to have dedicated resources that help drive innovation and 39 percent would like to have more training.

"It's interesting, because companies who just create an innovation program might think, 'If we build them that they will come,' but that's the wrong mentality," says Sung. "Oftentimes they fail just by virtue of the fact that the attention is really just based on the program itself, not the people.

"What we try to do is help clients to think about behaviors and defining what is it they want to change. What is it specifically? How do you know when you're getting the type of innovation that you're looking for? Are you looking for breakthrough innovation?"

If your organization is "trying to create a culture where everybody can find a reason to improve and innovate, then yes, there are many things that you can start doing," she says.

"Employees need to know that innovation isn't someone else's job," says Marder. "It is every employee's job to be thinking about better ways of doing things, either internally or for the client or customer."
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Feb 28, 2017
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