Employees who are knowledgeable about their work use judgement and skill in adapting and developing it. Yet the creative use of knowledge, judgement and skills at work are restricted by management strategies that rely on narrow versions of competence and compliance, as the UK Skills Surveys have suggested. Employee involvement in innovation is enhanced by workplace incentives for employees to learn to do new things in new ways and by good industrial relations that pay attention to whose interests are served.
In the European Union for more than a decade ‘skills-deficit’ stances dominated policies, demanding lifelong learning solutions. The early 21st century is dominated by the motif of innovation, being linked to challenges for reformulated versions of lifelong learning, emphasising the role of workplace learning. This is problematic in a number of ways, including the following:
- Connection between innovation and workplace learning? Both innovation and employees’ workplace learning feature in policy priorities throughout Europe, but little is known about how employees contribute to innovation.
- Innovation as universal good? More fundamentally, we know that innovation cannot be taken as a universal ‘good’. Indeed a state of permanent re-invention can be understood as part of the crisis of modern capitalism; part of the problem rather than the solution.
- Collaboration, open relationships and innovation? The progressive potential for social relations at work as the means of production shift in the direction of collaboration and more open relationships, is regarded an uneven process whose outcomes are uncertain and are certainly not guaranteed to produce the social transformations envisaged by the most optimistic writers on the topic.
Employees as drivers of innovation?
Research can play an important role in injecting an appreciation of the realities of workplaces and organizational dynamics. Although most innovation strategies recognise the essential role of employees in implementing innovation, external knowledge sources are often regarded as the key drivers. Employees’ potential roles as drivers of innovation have been overlooked as R&D-driven and user-driven innovation have been foregrounded in competitive strategies.
In 2003 I joined a European-wide ‘Employee-driven innovation’ network, initially sponsored by The Danish Strategic Research Council and the Danish Trade Union Confederation. This network has, over more than a decade, yielded refreshingly creative yet critical insights (See Høyrup et al. (2012) ‘Employee-driven innovation: A New Approach’).
Employee-driven innovation (EDI) refers to the generation and implementation of new ideas, products and processes by employees, including the everyday remaking of jobs and organizational practices. These innovations are often generated by the need to ‘work-around’ day-to-day problems at work, finding solutions as resources, systems or tools have to be adapted, developed or changed more fundamentally to meet unpredicted circumstances or the particular challenges of the task in hand.
Workplace learning is an integral element of innovation as it entails learning and learning opens up the possibilities of innovation. As EDI relies on incentives for employees to learn new things, to do tasks in new ways and to vary and eventually change working practices, working with co-workers, good industrial relations are rather important as country examples show.
Examples from Denmark and Sweden show how employer-trade union partnership supports employee initiation of experiments in reusing waste in production processes, resulting in higher levels of recycling; self-managing groups of workers finding ways of overcoming technical problems and employee-identified improvements in making services more responsive to their users. Ideas of employee-driven innovation have been taken up by the UK Work and Organisation Network (WON). Many managers now recognise the power of ‘high involvement innovation’, in which a lot of people each contribute every day, in ways that add up to strategic benefit. Such managers expect workers in the production front-line to think ‘how can I adapt this?’
The importance of creativity, diversity and who’s owning innovations?
EDI depends crucially on knowledgeable practice as well as ideas, time and creativity. Employees who are knowledgeable about their work use judgement and skill in adapting and developing it. When working in teams, EDI is facilitated by diversity of perspectives; an environment that values and develops problem-solving capacities, together with a reasonable tolerance for failure and support for learning through mistakes.
Yet each wave of development creates its own undertow. It is necessary to maintain a questioning stance on the issue of whose interests are served by the resulting innovations. For EDI to be sustained, the question of who owns and who should benefit from the production of ideas, products and processes should be one of the first matters for consideration, not the last.
Professor Karen Evans is Chair in Education, UCL Institute of Education and research leader in the LLAKES Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council.