Want To Be More Innovative? Train Your Employees!

The disconnect is stunning: While innovation executives around the globe name innovation as one of their top three priorities, 70 percent of them rate their company’s innovation capabilities as just average (source: Boston Consulting Group, 2014). This gap inspired CIMS research associate Tim Michaelis to look into exactly how large industrial companies train their employees to be innovators.  (Tim is pursuing NC State’s first-ever Ph.D. in psychology and management, innovation and entrepreneurship). We published his initial findings in this space in November 2015. In the current issue of the CIMS Innovation Management Report, Tim elaborates on what he’s learned to date. Here’s an excerpt of that article:

CIMS Research Associate Tim Michaelis presents his findings at the CIMS annual meeting.

CIMS Research Associate Tim Michaelis presents his findings at the CIMS annual meeting.

My initial findings—after interviewing 40 R&D directors and senior vice presidents of the largest companies in the world—is that innovation training does not happen in most companies. A lack of innovation training exists because employees simply do not have the time to innovate (they certainly have the ability). For example, one director told me “We just don’t have the time to do innovation the way it looks in the books.”

In an attempt to better understand the problem, I set my sights on an almost non-existent literature: innovation training.

What’s Innovation Training?

Innovation training is embedding innovation specific-knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) into employees. For my study, innovation was defined as “any novel product, service, or production process that departs significantly from prior product, service, or production process architectures.” I chose this definition because it best aligns with the strategic objectives of innovation-driven firms; for example, innovation defined as “novel processes or their outcomes (products or services), rather than administrative changes such as downsizing or organizational restructuring.”

The Innovation Talent War

Large companies spend a lot of time and money searching for innovative talent in what is commonly referred to as the “talent war,” and rightfully so as the Baby Boomer generation is retiring at approximately 10,000 people a day. This phenomenon is already happening and will continue through 2030. While hiring new employees is one route to building an innovative workforce, what else can companies do to build an innovative workforce?

In-house training would seem a no-brainer and, consequently, should have extensive research already completed on the topic. However, I found only a handful of academic articles and nearly zero practitioner articles about it.

This lack of information drove me to interview 40 R&D directors and senior vice presidents from the world’s largest companies, beginning in June 2015. In addition to learning what those companies were doing, I wanted to know: Does innovation training work?  If so, what are companies doing to teach innovation skills? Are they doing anything at all?

More specifically, I wanted to know:

  • How the largest companies measure innovation performance
  • What they view as their innovation success factors
  • How they train employees in those innovation best practices, based on Robert Cooper’s work on R&D best practices in new product development.

Common Themes in Innovation Training

My initial findings showed that innovation training does not happen in most of the companies interviewed. Here are some responses I received to my questions, followed by an analysis based on what we at CIMS have learned about innovation management:

“We don’t have standardized metrics to measure innovation… so how could we do portfolio management?  It is impossible to compare any of our projects!”

CIMS says: Without standardized innovation metrics, portfolio analysis cannot be done. Thus, companies without defined innovation metrics will remain stuck in ad-hoc incrementalism.

“We hire smart people and expect them to figure it out.”

CIMS says: Companies need to focus on shifting knowledge from the retiring Baby Boomers to the next generation. One solution: Have the experienced innovators teach internal innovation courses for newcomers.

“We do on the job training and trial by fire.”

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but embedding core KSAs early on will remove role ambiguity from newcomers to innovation. Innovation is inherently fuzzy.  By providing clear instruction and training, newcomers to innovation will see reduced stress and higher commitment to the organization.

“We have a project charter, but we mostly write down objectives, not definitions.”

CIMS says: Companies need clear and early product/project definitions.

“If we spend too much time training people they wouldn’t get any real work done.”

CIMS says: Considering most companies do not do innovation training, this may not be a big issue for the majority of large companies.

We have too many innovation tools, we are tooled out.”

CIMS says: Take the time to systematically review your company’s innovation toolbox. Managers need to reduce the reporting burden on their employees. Let them innovate!

The Bottom Line

These findings suggest that the R&D units of the biggest companies in the world are overwhelmed with innovation tools, lack the time to learn them, don’t have standard innovation metrics, and expect their employees to just “figure innovation out” in a trial-by-fire manner. Companies seem to be adopting portions of best practices on an ad-hoc basis to solve current problems in their innovation pipeline.

As a result, companies never build a systematic innovation process. These mingled-together NPD best practices are rarely discarded and linger in the training / HR system for years, creating more and more confusion. It’s a real Catch-22. Companies don’t have time to use NPD best practices and train employees because their current collection of business processes and best practices keeps them from doing so.

Implications for Management

Here’s the million-dollar question: Why do 70 percent of executives feel average in their capability to innovate, but still view innovation as a priority? I hate being the bearer of bad news, but innovation in large companies today is stuck in a purgatory of indecisiveness. In fact, as I was completing this article, I read of a study by CEB  that business nationwide is slowing down, not accelerating. CEB  reported a “common” complaint from top managers at the world’s largest companies: “It’s just so hard to get stuff done.”

It is clear that innovation training does not occur in the companies I interviewed. However, the real problem seems to be that large company innovation processes have deviated or mutated from a once strategy-driven approach to an ad-hoc, Frankenstein-esque, hodgepodge of complexity. As companies grow, they seem to be good at adding new tools to their innovation process, but bad at deleting old ones.

My recommendation: Big companies should look to simplify their innovation process relative to their strategic goals, whether these involve incremental innovations or disruptive innovations.

Without a strategy-driven innovation process, the question for future research becomes, “How long can a company last with an overly complex and ad-hoc approach to innovation?” If there is any parallel to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, it would suggest that the monster—ad-hoc, non-strategic, innovation process—will eventually kill its creator. Namely, the company.—Tim Michaelis

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