By Eric van Niekerk – Research Lead, Innocentrix

The innovative employee

Innovation is often seen as ‘thinking outside of the box’, where a more accurate metaphor may be ‘expanding the box’. Innovations do not have to be brand-new, radical ideas that forever change the way we do business. An innovative idea may be a small change to an existing product or process. And who knows your organisations products and processes better than your employees?

When developing an innovation strategy, there is a tendency to focus exclusively on the thinking of dedicated innovation leaders or teams. By having this narrow focus, the greatest innovative potential within an organisation is ignored – its employees. Collaborative innovation focuses on using the “wisdom of the crowd”, in this instance, the “crowd” happens to be internal to the organisation. With valuable, internal insight into the organisation, this “employee crowd” may have significant untapped knowledge and loads of innovative ideas that can take an organisation to the next level.

Added benefits or employee innovation

Involving employees within the innovation process can even lead to improvements in the general working of your organisation: allowing for some creative expression in the workplace may lead to greater job satisfaction amongst employees, leading to better work performance. Involving employees in the process can also lessen the burden on innovation teams by distributing innovation responsibility. The distribution, and the involvement of the employee body can lead to the creating of a more innovative organisational culture, further increasing the changes of innovation growth within the organisation.

With organisational growth linked directly to employee input, a greater sense of achievement and responsibility could be shared by the employees. This may lead to improved moral and greater work performance as a result.

Case study: Google

Voted as the 3rd most valuable brand in the world, and sporting a market value of more than $367 billion, Google is obviously doing something right. The leader in the computer services industry is known for its innovative and future-orientated ideas. Interestingly, many of these ideas, and some of Google’s biggest features like Gmail and AdSense, came directly from employees, and specifically from the “20% time project”.

Google often boasted about their 20% time project, where each employee was encouraged to use 20% of their work time to focus on a Google-related side project of their own making. Even though the 20% time project has become slightly controversial in recent times, other tech companies like Yahoo and Apple have taken notice and implemented similar projects in their own organisations.

These world-leading technological giants generate rich ideas from their employee base, ideas that have taken companies like Google to new heights. Organisations like Google appreciates that employees are not only capable of doing what they were appointed to do, but that they might be walking around with great ideas that could seriously benefit the organisation. By allowing employees to innovative, Google can tap into the creativity and expertise of its employees and develop new and innovative products without missing a single step.

Case study: Adobe

Quite recently, Adobe announced their own version of the 20% time – the Kickbox. Though, instead of giving employees 20% of their work time to use as a resource, Adobe gave 1000 of their employees a big red box, or Kickbox.

Kickbox is an innovation workshop in a box, containing helpful guidelines and resources for employees to develop and refine their own, innovative ideas. Included in Adobe’s Kickbox is a prepaid R10 000 credit card that employees can freely use to forward their innovation projects. Amongst all the innovation-aligned content, the box also includes a Starbucks gift card, and a candy bar. The purpose of the box is to inspire creativity within individual employees, and then to assist them in developing their creativity into a feasible, innovative project. Employees are then also provided the opportunity to present their ideas to key executives and customers so that they can receive feedback or validation.

The local perspective

In the Innocentrix Innovation League study, we found that 60% of South Africa’s top companies devote resources (time, funds, etc) to employees to pursue innovative projects (albeit with some restrictions). With such a varied local workforce, South African organisations often have employees from different backgrounds, each individual sporting their own, unique outlook. By tapping into these different views and ideas, innovations that have never been seen before may come to light through innovative employee engagement projects. Innovative organisations should use their employee base as a source of ideation and innovation, as it can be one of your most powerful tools. Innovation still happens when real people solve real problems, based on a view of the organisation and the environment it operates in.

What are you doing to regularly and effectively integrate your organisation’s greatest asset – your “employee crowd” into your organisation’s innovation efforts?