Innovation: do HR and business leaders mean the same thing?

By Laura Harrison, Director of People and Strategy

We published the findings of our latest HR Outlook survey this week and for the first time both HR leaders (35%) and business leaders (32%) see innovation as a top priority.  Great news, and, of course, intriguing – what do we really mean by innovation and do HR leaders and business leaders mean the same thing?  And what challenges does an HR practitioner face when seeking to innovate or – to go to the word’s derivation - create something new? 

One of the most illuminating articles I’ve read on this topic recently (and I’m a bit behind as it was published in 2011 and recalls work published in the late 1970s) is Exploring the Boundaries of Human Resource Managers’ Responsibilities in which David Guest and Christopher Woodrow  discuss the challenges that HR managers face in balancing the requirements or needs of “management and workers.”  In the article, the authors recall the work of Karen Legge which discusses “how personnel managers [can] gain sufficient power and influence to enact their role..”  You want to innovate, create something new?  You need resources and influence to do it.  In her writing Legge discusses two different strategies – “conformist” and “deviant” innovation – for gaining this influence and resource power. 

The former means working within the system as it’s defined. Influence comes from getting things done through the engine of the human resources machine in line with the business strategy or plans.  In other words, your seat at the proverbial table is merited because you’re an efficient execution engine, minimising the people costs and risks associated with a business decision.  You conform to business norms, operate within them and get things done (and let’s not knock this down - getting things done is important!).

A deviant innovator on the other hand seeks to “challenge the organisation by drawing on professional standards, including ethical standards…”  In other words, the system can be changed – you are trusted not only because you can get things done – but you influence what is to be done and how.  Perhaps the word “deviant” is troubling for many – although I find it rather compelling.  It brings to mind erring from the path, doing something different, challenging the status quo.  If you went into human resources practice believing that it’s possible for the business you work for to deliver value for all its stakeholders – not only its shareholders and customers – but its people too, then I think deviant innovation is for you.

A deviant innovator wouldn’t ask how can we make a healthier workforce for greater productivity, but how we can support the wellbeing of our workforce because well-being is an end in itself.  A deviant innovator would ask “what’s the point in performance management systems?” rather than “should we adjust our performance management system to reduce management time spent on it?”  Deviant innovation stopped children going up chimneys and down mines and resulted in equality acts and protection of the vulnerable.  There’s a business case for cheap (child labour) but at our best we find the human case intolerable.

At the CIPD we’re exploring a number of questions that relate to the principles and ethics of HR practice, workforce wellbeing and sustainable value creation in business.  So if innovation meets ethical questions in your mind, if sometimes you feel the need to state the human case over the business case, join in the latest conversation on our community site.  There are no easy answers, but answers come from at least starting to ask the right questions.  And as we seek influence and resources to enact our innovations, let’s be clear what and whom we want that influence and those resources for.

Read other blogs by Laura

  • What can Sports Direct teach us about fairness and corporate culture?
  • Ethics and professionalism are intimate bedfellows
  • Let's not blow up HR!

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

  • Thanks for the thought provoking comments so far - I certainly appreciate that I may have over simplified a massive swathe of social and economic change over the course of >200 years!  My point is that when we talk about innovation within HR are we asking ourselves enough about the purpose of our work?  

  • I'm not sure I entirely agree with your breakdown of the difference between conformist and deviant innovators.  I think you've misunderstood the principles underlying each position and, to make them clearer, you have to remember that there's a third position: the non-innovator.

    If we imagine the organization as an engine, the non-innovator's role is to maintain the engine: they keep it running for the least amount of effort and short-term cost.

    Conformist innovators, meanwhile, are trying to tune the engine for peak performance.  They might widen a pipe here or change out a valve there.  The engine continues to do the same job, but does it better and more efficiently.  Their work requires more effort and medium-term planning as changes are likely to occur over periods of months rather than days.

    The deviant innovators, by contrast, spend their time wondering whether we could replace this engine with one from a Mini Cooper, a Jaguar XKS or perhaps a Tornado GR1.  Or possibly you could replace the engine entirely with something made of puppies and flowers.

    Deviant innovators are deep, long-term thinkers.  Their ideas can sometimes come into play very quickly if you're dealing with start-up companies or new enterprises, but they will usually have been subject to considerable analysis and assessment before they're given a green light.

    Different organizations need different quantities of each of these, depending on their size, purpose and culture.  It's easy to think of the deviant innovators as HR rock stars.  But sometimes having a rock star in your ranks means tantrums, messy break-ups and TVs through windows.

    Deviant innovators don't see ethical standards purely in terms of improving productivity, sure.  But that doesn't mean they see them only in terms of ethics for ethics' sake.  Rather, they see them as part of an intricate and inter-related network of pressures and demands.  Early chimney-sweeping innovators will have done away with their child-sweeps not just because it was unethical, but because (1) thanks to that Dickens fellow, *clients* were starting to think it was unethical; (2) technology offered better and cheaper solutions; (3) the designs of houses were changing and chimneys were becoming too small even for children, and (4) they'd never felt very comfortable with child-sweeps and now it made sense to not use them.