Do companies REALLY want their employees to drive innovation? Eh,no.

Most managers will claim that employees are crucial for the innovation in their organization.

Employees can provide ideas about optimizing the work process, they identify problems regarding the implementation of new procedures. Without the active cooperation of employees, any innovation project is doomed to fail. But do employees actually contribute to innovations in firms? And if they do, how?

Building on a recent VIGOR publication in the journal Lifelong Learning in Europe we show that actual ‘employee driven innovation’ isn’t common. In fact, it’s a rarity.

Types of Employee-Driven Innovation

Employee-Driven Innovation refers to innovations in which employees play a central role. Essentially, we can distinguish between innovations that were developed on the initiative of the employee, and those where the management takes the initiative but asks for active involvement of the employees.

In the second category, where management takes the initiative, we can further differentiate between three types of employee driven innovation:

  • Delegation: employees are invited by the management to generate, develop and introduce innovations in the workplace. The management gives a certain degree of autonomy to the employees over the whole innovation process.
  • Ideation: here, the role of the employees is limited to proposing ideas and giving advice about workplace innovations. The management keeps control over the selection of the ideas and the actual implementation.
  • Execution: the role of the employee is limited to the introduction of innovations on the work floor. Employees do not have any influence on the selection or development of the innovation but need to change existing work practices in order to integrate the new innovation on the workplace.

Employee Driven Innovation: common or rare?

In order to see whether these different types of Employee-Driven Innovation are common or more rare, the VIGOR research group collected data from 927 employees in Flanders (Belgium).

The employees came from five different sectors: banking, distribution, hotels & restaurants, chemical industry and the social sector. In the  survey, employees were asked whether they were already involved in an innovation process in their company and what their role was in this innovation process.

The results are given in table 1 and are eye-opening. About 40% of the respondents indicated that they have never been involved in any innovation process in their organization. In the distribution and hotels & restaurant sector, this percentage was even higher.

Further, we see that employees who were involved in innovation rarely did this on their own initiative. In general, less than 5 % of the innovation projects were taken on the initiative of the employees. (Ed: see also ‘Intrapreneurs: this is why managers don’t listen to your creative ideas’)

Only in the social sector a fair amount of respondents (6%) indicated that they took the initiative themselves, in all the other organizations, this proportion was marginally low.

Mostly, employees are invited by the management to give ideas or help in the implementation of the innovations, but also here the differences between the sectors are obvious. In the chemical industry and in the social sector, managers tend to give a relatively broad mandate to the employees while in the banking sector and in the distribution, the role of the employees is mostly limited to the execution phase.

So while the role of employees in innovation is touted by organizations, this is not reflected in actual employee involvement in practice. In the cases where employees do take part in the innovation process, their role is mostly limited to giving ideas or helping in the execution phase. Rarely do employees take the initiative for workplace innovations.

This research can serve as an eye-opener for all innovation enthusiasts: although crucial, employee involvement in innovation is a rarity. If Europe is to become an ‘innovative union’, the findings of this study should be a wake-up call for policy makers who should not only focus on convincing the managers and entrepreneurs about the importance of innovation, but also about the necessity of involving all stakeholders in the process.

* De Spiegelaere, S., Van Gyes, G., & Van Hootegem, G. (2012). Mainstreaming Innovation in Europe: Findings on employee innovation and workplace learning from Belgium. Lifelong Learning in Europe, 17(4). (link)

Photo: Jurvetson, Flickr

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About the author

Stan De Spiegelaere

Stan De Spiegelaere is a researcher at HIVA (Research Institute for Work and Society). He is currently working on a PhD on the relation between employment relations and innovative work behavior. You can follow Stan on Twitter.

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