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Fostering innovation in your people: tech leaders

Fostering innovation in your people: tech leaders

“The ad-hoc employee is over," says former Silicon Valley executive Dr Tracey Wilen-Daugenti

Creating an innovative organisation is not all about harnessing new technologies; it’s about a change in work processes and people management, according to technology leaders at the Amplify Festival in Sydney.

According to managing director at Apollo Research Institute and former Silicon Valley executive, Dr Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, organisations are not spending enough time on broadening the skills of their employees to take on new challenges and projects that will drive business growth.

“When I look at the statistics on how much time an employee spends on career development – one and a half hours a year versus 2700 hours of sleeping a year – and you’re working eight hours a day, there’s something off in that balance,” she said.

“The ad-hoc employee is over. The company needs to create an environment where employees can flourish and take charge of their careers. No doubt technology increases productivity and no doubt there are technologies that can increase innovation. But at the end of the day, it’s about people.”

Dr Ashwin Ram, chief innovation officer, Augmented Social Cognition at Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC), said scheduling in time for teams to work collaboratively on solving a business problem separate to their day-to-day tasks has proven to be effective in increasing employees’ work ethos and productivity, and often leads to new ideas and solutions.

“Google is famous for doing this with its 20 per cent time. But there is no reason other companies can’t be doing some version of this on a schedule that makes sense to you,” he said.

“It might be once a quarter, once a month, once a year… where people get together and they spend the day trying to solve problems or come up with a new idea. It might be a problem set by the company, [or] it might be a problem that has been nagging at you all year.”

Read Searching for winners: Google.

Another way of fostering innovation is to have prize-based projects and incentives that encourage competition among teams to build new services, and will lead to revenue.

“Give them more exposure, put people on cross-functional projects, [and] swap out [ideas] with startup firms,” Wilen-Daugenti advised.

Holly Benson, practice leader of organisational transformation at Infosys, said organisations also need to look at how they reward staff and how that might affect collaboration and employees working together to deliver on their ideas. She said many organisations reward their employees for individual achievement, not collective achievement.

“For many companies, particularly in the Silicon Valley area, we reward initiation but not execution. So we may innovate, but then we take a very long time to get those things [up and running],”she said.

“You can’t look at skills in isolation from how you aggregate those into jobs, organisational structures and delegations of authority. You can’t look at that in isolation from how you set objectives for employees and how you manage performance, reward and compensate them. And you can’t look at that in isolation from the overall corporate culture; the unspoken rules of behaviour that really drive the choices we make.”

One of the biggest deterrents to creating an innovative organisation is intolerance to failure, and where employees feel it’s better to stagnate in their work than to take on risk, according to Ram. He said business leaders need to set up a working space or environment where employees can feel safe to test their ideas and take risks with new projects.

“I live in Silicon Valley, where there is a very deep rooted culture of failure. If you’ve failed as an entrepreneur you are more likely to get funded for your next startup as compared to someone who has never failed or tried before. Embrace failure because that will lead to innovation.”

Read Don’t fear failure in innovation: Google.

Novel and adaptive thinking

To be innovative in today’s super competitive, technology-driven world, business leaders also need to move beyond their own understanding of how technology operates within their business and overlay it with the expertise of others in the organisation.

“[For example] what if we took [IBM’s] Watson [analytics computer] and pumped into it all the information about cancer, symptoms, prescriptions and medical solutions, some that we know and some controversial… and see if it can beat us to a cure for cancer?” Wilen-Daugenti said.

“What if we take 3D printing, which is working in manufacturing, and bring it into healthcare? What would happen if we made ears? When I look at the ability to re-construct and entire face or someone’s body by using living cells I think that’s profound.

“Most people associate social media with marketing sales and branding. [But] we could use social media as a way to find experts and pull them together to create either a product or a service.”

Follow Rebecca Merrett on Twitter: @Rebecca_Merrett

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Tags innovationAmplify FestivalDr Ashwin RamDr Tracey Wilen-Daugentipeople managementHolly Benson

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