Finding the hidden innovation in your business

Unrecognised innovation in the workplace could be a brake on the bottom line of small businesses, according to a new report launched by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES).

The report outlines the findings of a series of projects run as part of the UK Futures Programme. The projects explored how to help small manufacturing businesses manage and commercialise innovation, but in so doing, they also found that there was a limited definition of innovation. Innovation isn’t just about Research & Development and people in white coats working in labs. It is also about developing new, or improving existing, business practices, organisation structures or marketing approaches. But left unrecognised, small businesses may not be reaping the rewards of the innovations of their staff.

Firms taking part in the UK Futures Programme projects reported that they were not particularly innovative at the outset. This is largely due to seeing innovation as being only about developing new products. They placed little or no emphasis on management or commercialisation of innovation. But as a result of participating in the UK Futures Programme, these firms have realised they are engaging in innovation, through developing new practices or even by improving existing ones. Once noticed, they realised how beneficial this was to their business and how relatively simple steps could help them innovate even more.

Michael Smith, Northern Ireland Polymers Association, who led one of the five projects under Skills for Innovation in Manufacturing said:

Some of our participating companies were hesitant about joining this initiative because it was difficult to see what value they would gain from something they didn’t fully appreciate or understand the scope of [innovation]. But as employers began to open up and share their experiences, it was evident that they were engaging in innovation covering not just product, but also around marketing, processes and management too. Innovation and commercialisation is fundamental to every business’s continued success. It fully deserves and requires to be recognised, addressed, resourced and managed accordingly.

Innovation is a difficult undertaking, with no right or wrong way to do it. But there are tools and approaches which can structure and manage the approach. In doing this it is important to remember that innovation has to be relevant and customisable to each organisation. The report from UKCES highlights various means to improve innovation including the following three tips:

  1. Innovation should be at the forefront of an organisation’s strategic thinking. This can be done by firms establishing an innovation strategy or even just as a standing agenda item to maintain focus.
  2. Engaging staff is critical. Senior managers need to provide vision and leadership, but good communication and encouraging contribution amongst all staff helps grow a culture of innovation. Innovation should be open to everyone not just the preserve of a discrete few.
  3. Ensure that training and development are prioritised to build skills and capabilities because people are the key ingredient to innovation and its success.

The full evaluation report for these projects and a brochure covering case studies of each project can be found here.

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