Welcome to the premiere of our magazine's Best HR Ideas winners' circle.
Consider this competition and our coverage of its results a celebration of innovation. In recognizing the best human resource ideas of the past year, we're essentially honoring the thought processes and creativity that went into getting them off the ground, along with the programs and approaches to the business challenges themselves.
We're also underscoring the need for organizations, particularly HR organizations, to work harder than ever today -- in these economically troubled times -- to harness their creative energy and encourage their innovative thinkers in order to stay ahead of the pack and survive. HR programs that can minimize, or at least not inflate, costs while still improving engagement, creativity and productivity take special minds in special environments.
But what is innovation, that coveted and elusive power that most HR leaders yearn to harness throughout their organizations? And why do expressed commitments to furthering it fade away as momentary blips of lip service in some organizations, while in others, such commitments appear to turn companies around?
If you ask Scott Anthony, managing director of Innosight, a Watertown, Mass.-based innovation consulting firm, he'll tell you the keys to companywide innovation lie in finding the right people who can excel at it and in training them so they develop the right mind frame -- or "mind shift," as he calls it -- for innovation to take hold.
"Managers [need to be given] the necessary skills [so they'll be able to look] at the world in a different way," he told HRE awhile back. "These are skills that don't come naturally to everyone and have to be learned."
Terry Waghorn, partner at Toronto-based Secor Consulting and one of the people behind its soon-to-be-released global innovation survey, would agree that training is a necessity for unleashing a company's creative potential. But he would take that an important step further, to the notion of embedding innovation through training "that reaches everyone, at every rung, not just the select few."
He points to Nancy Snyder, corporate vice president of leadership and strategic competency creation at Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool Corp., as someone he would call an "innovation czar." Under her leadership, Whirlpool set out on a bold initiative in 1999 to significantly increase the new ideas emerging within the company.
Snyder set up a program that enrolled every salaried employee in a business innovation course, tied management's long-term bonuses to its innovativeness and established an intranet portal where employees could go to learn the principles of innovation. Through the portal, they could also keep up on the latest research, track the progress of ideas from concept toward realization and even volunteer to work on one another's projects.
"All of the HR systems at Whirlpool -- pay, rewards, hiring, training, etc. -- have been hard-wired into the company's innovation strategy," says Waghorn. "HR plays an absolutely pivotal role in embedding innovation. It's a matter of helping the organization re-engineer the workplace structure.
"There's a new role today for HR in encouraging innovation," he says. "Building enterprise capability and embedding it deeply repositions the role of human resources. Many organizations have never really gone beyond glorified personnel departments [focused on] corporate policies, regulations, hiring, firing, orientation, benefits ... .
"But when an organization recognizes the importance of embedding innovation, HR automatically moves to center stage. It leads to a revamp of all the normal HR tools: pay, recognition, long-term incentive plans, even the people you're hiring and training."
Though only a handful of the ideas profiled in the next four pages are specifically geared toward strengthening the creative and innovative juices at these organizations, each one is a testament to the environment it sprang from -- where ideas were clearly encouraged and their implementations taken seriously.
In the four categories we considered -- talent management, benefits, HR technology, and training and development -- there were a host of things to look at in the more-than-100 nominations we received.
There were wide-ranging solutions to problems -- such as the need to better match wellness initiatives to the individuals they aimed to help; the need for better, richer leadership-development options; and the need for some kind of enriching educational conference for HR staff that wouldn't cost an arm and a leg in travel expenses during the current recession.
In the area of talent management, one novel approach to enhancing the workforce included letting employees submit for consideration "One Simple Thing" that would lead to better work/life balance and, therefore, better morale and productivity -- a simple tweak that wouldn't detract from the company's bottom line.
Another winner was a program to assist recently laid-off workers find new employment with the help of personal recruiters, access to tools and information, resume and interview workshops, and an extension of medical coverage for up to six months -- all supplied by the downsized company at minimal cost.
All of the programs and initiatives were judged on the bases of level of innovation, transferability to other HR departments and effectiveness of the program. In addition to judging the submitted nominations, HRE's editors also added to the mix ideas they encountered -- and reported on -- during the 2008 year.
The results, we feel, represent some of the most innovative and transferable solutions to some of the most troubling HR challenges today, particularly in these recessionary times.