The HB seat at your innovation table

The HB seat at your innovation table

The HB seat at your innovation table

  • Posted by Cris Beswick
  • On 26/09/2022

Who sits at your innovation table? OK, I acknowledge that the answer may vary according to your business sector and size. Hopefully, at least some of the executive team are there, helping to set strategy and vision and sponsor innovation-led transformation. I’m sure you will have one or more innovation leaders or champions sitting in, acting as a conduit between the executive team and the business, building robust plans to ensure that the vision translates into action. You may also have an innovation accounting specialist, an IT expert, external collaborators, etc.

Significantly that mix of individuals will most likely vary as your level of innovation maturity grows. But novice innovator or expert; if your innovation ambition is not delivering as expected, it is a fair bet that you have left one key seat at the innovation table vacant, and that seat belongs to your HR department.

Let’s be honest; HR hasn’t always had a good reputation in the past. Given the ‘traditional’ perception of HR as hirers and firers, as managers of payroll and process, as managers of ‘resources’, the last people you might want near your free-flowing innovation-led vision is the HR department. That attitude can perhaps best be summed up by a 2016 CIPD report which revealed that just 26% of business leaders thought that their current people strategy would help the organisation achieve its future priorities. [1]

Now, let’s turn that business leader’s perception on its head, moving away from legacy groupthink and viewing modern HR departments as enablers of innovation. Suppose you are looking for open-minded free thinkers. In that case, people who are not afraid to experiment and network across the organisation, then your Human Resources department, can find them for you. If you are looking for skill sets that meet your innovation ambitions, then HR are the people who can arrange the necessary training and development pathways. And if you are looking to create a reward matrix that promotes teamwork and innovation, then, well, you get the picture. Sympa’s 2022 The Future of Work perfectly summed it up: “no functioning HR, no functioning people, no organisation.” [2]

The idea of setting people deliverers at the heart of the business strategy is not a new one. In our book Building a Culture of Innovation [3], we devoted a chapter to building innovation aptitude, commenting that “when it comes to teamwork and employee engagement, HR are right at the forefront of the knowledge game.” And in their book Innovation Accounting, Dan Toma and Esther Gons also included a chapter on measuring innovation HR capabilities, including the takeaway that “investments in innovation human resource capability development impact directly the innovation ecosystem.” [4]

Leading people strategist Josh Bersin is also a strong proponent of human-centred leadership. His 2022 Global HR Capability Project [5] revealed that “high-growth companies have HR teams that can partner with senior leaders, coach managers and executives, and have a deep understanding of the business’s operations.” Moreover, those HR departments promote skills such as learning, performance, communication and inclusion, all critical parameters for innovation.

This more up-to-date viewpoint of HR as enablers of innovation has echoes within my own-drive-contribute innovation framework. Human resources teams sit at the forefront of delivery when we move from a business to a people-centred approach. By engaging with the innovation imperative, HR teams can not only help the executive team to own the agenda but also create the conditions that enable managers to drive innovation forward and their people to contribute fully to the innovation agenda.

In effect, HR becomes the conduit to success: hiring, boosting skills, and setting the reward mechanisms which enable innovation to become fully embedded in the organisation. Most importantly, HR can help set the conditions that will allow an intense information flow across the organisation. In my previous article, I talked about how managers innovate from the heart of the organisation. They can only do so when an organisational structure has been set, allowing experimentation, communication, and autonomy. And when in that article, I highlighted the importance of a strong executive/managerial dynamic; here again, success comes from a structure built on trust and confidence through solid hiring and attention to boosting relevant skills.

Interestingly, the 2020 CIPD report, People Profession 2030, [6] suggested that critical approaches for ‘people professionals’ included the development of future-fit skills to thrive in a changing world and to take the lead on strategic change and developments. That report recognised the part which HR professionals must play in innovation and the need for HR professionals first to change themselves to change the organisation. It’s an attitude that echoes in a 2017 Institute of Employment Studies report. [7] That report concluded that HR could contribute to a broad spectrum of innovation activities by ensuring its processes facilitate, not hinder, innovation.

One final point I think all leaders should acknowledge is that Employees (Humans) are NOT ‘resources’ and maybe it’s time we changed HR to HB. From the Human Resources Department to the Human Beings Department! So, does HB have a seat at your innovation table? Perhaps it is about time they did to ensure that you aren’t missing out on one of the key facilitators and enablers of innovation culture in your organisation.