Is HR Bad for Innovation?

February 12, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

HR often gets a bad rap when it comes to innovation. We care about consensus, for one thing. We tend to be careful and cautious, for another. In HR, risk often feels more dangerous than interesting. The notion of disruption excites product and marketing managers, but in human resources, we spent a great deal of our energy on avoiding disruption—so why would we borrow trouble?

Innovation seems to require leaps of intuition, something of a maverick mindset, and a real willingness to take on risk. So does that mean HR can’t innovate?

No. In fact, innovation isn’t anathema to HR at all. In fact, it is essential to HR. Now bear with me! The thing is, if a company wants to be an innovator, that innovation must start with human resources, not trickle down to it. Because it is people, not products, that are at the heart of innovation in any company.  Here’s how Karl Moore put it in a Forbes article:

The mindset and culture of your HR team has an exponential impact on the entire organization: everyone is influenced by HR. Therefore, changing your organization and becoming more successful and innovative begins by teasing apart your beliefs on this role. Who is in a better position to campaign for and express the culture and needs of your organization at all touch points (hiring, policies and programs, new employee on-boarding, succession planning, performance management, etc.) than HR?

I think we all get that innovation is important for success. But it is also true that caution and consensus have their place. HR has its own style of innovation. We can’t and won’t charge willy-nilly into disruption for the sake of it. Luckily, there are ways to innovate, and ways to bring this dynamic into your company culture while still building agreement and mitigating risk.

One way to do that is simply to pay more attention to what is already there and simply amplify it. Find the things that are working best in your organization—the disruptions that are already there—and develop them. Here are some very simple ways to extend the innovations already seeded in your company.

Get Clearer Insight: The first step in innovating is having a clear understanding of what is happening and where. Find ways to manage your culture and get clear insights into how your values are faring down on the ground. Identify those outliers in your organization who are currently out there innovating and taking risks, and learn from them.

Use the Technologies You Have: Look at the technology you already have at your disposal. Are you making the most of it? Can you use technology such as electronic communications or enterprise social tools in new ways? Employees are data consumers via technology in their private lives—are there ways you could bring that same level of control, fluidity and self-service to more mundane HR functions, such as benefits or reporting?

Use the Data You Have: More than ever, HRIS tools are generating powerful data. Are you making the most of the data you’re creating? Think outside the box. How can you use data from one function to strengthen another? For example, recognition data can be instrumental in helping you to identify top performers for succession management. Are you just collecting data, or are you analyzing it and leveraging it in innovative ways?

Realign Processes: We all have processes. They are a critical way to make work scalable in any organization. But processes can be one of the worst offenders when it comes to blocking innovation, because they make us resistant to change. You don’t have to break all your processes to innovate, but you do need to be willing to rethink processes that may be causing  you to stagnate. One perfect example of this is the performance review process. Is yours working? Could it be better? Could simple adjustments like referencing input from crowdsourced performance data help you to make reviews significantly more meaningful?

Get Out in Front of Change: Are you aware of the next big thing in the field? Are you ready for it? Learn what the pioneers in HR are doing. You may not be ready to implement everything tomorrow, but you’ll be able to see it coming, prepare the ground, and make the leap when it is right for you.

Don’t let anyone tell you HR can’t innovate! And don’t be afraid of it. Just do it in the way that makes the best sense for HR.

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