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Role of HR in Innovation

HR Directors are the most important person in any organizations where innovation is concern. Some of you are rolling our eyes right now, “Hey! Aren’t the scientists and engineers suppose to innovate, but HR? What has HR to do with innovation projects happening in any organization?” The human resources within a company are the single most important ingredient in the innovation success formula. It follows quite naturally that the HR function must have an impact on the company’s innovation capacity. The only real question is how HR can ensure that this impact is a positive one.

“First, innovation is foremost a commitment of resources to an uncertain future. People dislike uncertainty and are somewhat unwilling to risk their jobs or futures working on items that are new or risky, without the appropriate assurances that the firm needs and requires people to try new things and make mistakes. So, the ability to communicate that failure is expected and people need to “think outside the box” and will be rewarded for doing those things is important. Second, you need to identify people who can “think outside the box”. Let’s not assume that everyone is equally innovative, but instead let’s recruit people for their innovation capabilities. Are they inquisitive? Are they locked into one viewpoint or willing to consider others? Are they open to new ideas, new concepts? These questions have a lot to do with how people are recruited and how their skills are improved to welcome innovation.

Finally, the most powerful force in business is culture. While corporate culture is not necessarily the responsibility of HR, the people who are hired and the training and cultural imperatives placed on the business are done so through HR, so HR can have a big impact on whether or not the firm is culturally attuned to innovation. So, we’ve identified the roles people play and the risk or encouragement of innovation, the ability of the people to think about innovation and to be creative, and the ability to impact or influence the culture. All of these are features of the business that HR can impact. Over time, one can argue that innovation is a sustainable competitive advantage, and that businesses can can attract and retain creative, innovative people and implement a culture that sustains innovation will create strong competitive advantage. If so, HR will have a huge impact on that company and its culture. Too often we think of innovation as the responsibility of a product team or a business unit. Innovation springs from the minds of creative individuals working in an environment that spawns and encourages innovation. Attracting and keeping the most innovative people, and constantly improving their skills, and creating a culture that supports innovation will enable the firm in the long run to differentiate itself. These are all roles for HR.”


HR automatically takes on the center stage where the strategic value and the immense organizational transition are vital in building a corporate-wide innovation capability. The sad reality is that too many CEOs overlook HR’s potential in this regard. They still think of HR solely in terms of regulatory compliance, hiring and firing, employee comfort, compensation and benefits.

Notably, Jack Welch, illustrious ex-CEO of GE and arguably one of the greatest corporate leaders of our times, sees things differently. In a recent column in BusinessWeek, he writes that “every CEO should elevate his head of HR to the same stature as the CFO.” It’s time for HR to step up to the plate and take on the strategic role of innovation capability builder.

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