Systemic Barriers to Innovation

My previous post (here) commenting on Bill Taylor's critique of the role of industry experience on decision making and innovation got me thinking about the systemic barriers to innovation that exist in many organisations. Taylor argues that by framing decision making on historical information, industry benchmarks and the actions of competitors, leaders are unwittingly cutting themselves off from a  deep pool of innovation. He also cites two good examples of organisations (here) that have broadened their scope to identify new approaches and innovation that were developed by examining unconnected industries.

In addition to being a problem of attitude and perspective amongst leaders, I would also argue that the systems and processes that organisations rely on for their day to day also hinder the development of new ideas and innovation. In other words an inability to innovate  is structural as well as psychological.

Take HR for example. HR is the ultimate experience counts function. In a desire to feed back to the business HR hoovers up all the tangible data it can, performance metrics, targets, KPI's and benchmarks. However by trying to be seen as a valuable source of key organisational information and by extension a key sounding board, HR is doing itself a massive disservice. The result of this datacentric approach is that problems are viewed and decisions made within a highly restrictive framework. Taking this approach not only limits the possibilities of new ideas and innovation permeating the organisation, there is also little evidence that these measurements actually contribute to existing productivity.

Well, what can HR do? Allow me to take a moment to envisage what could be possible. To start, let's follow Taylor's advice and get people in to run HR who are not necessarily HR professionals. This would at least help provide some new perspective and as more and more of standard HR practice is either automated or outsourced an understanding of the mechanics of HR becomes less important.

Above all in order to address the systemic obstacles the new HR function needs to focus on the intangibles rather than the hard data approach currently used. HR needs to develop expertise around the idea of fit, the intersection of behaviour, relationships and culture. This clearly requires a radical change in outlook and to do this HR needs a detailed understanding of culture throughout the organisation, embrace social networks and become the disrupter in chief. Encourage cross fertilisation of ideas and move people between groups and functions. HR needs to act as the relationship architect within the organisation, not only identifying areas of potential collaboration but also helping line managers best manage and engage their teams.

Not to be too down on the HR department, it is important to state that HR is not to blame for the current situation, it merely reflects the underlying desire for certainty, predictability and simplicity of senior management, this attitude is deeply embedded in our organisations and their systems. In theory HR should be front and centre of the drive for increased innovation, however in order to achieve this a fundamental change is required in both attitude and systems.




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