Grappling with HR’s Role in Innovation and Growth

Four top leaders of the HR profession took to the stage Monday in the opening session of the Human Resource Executive  Forum® to share their respective challenges and solutions when it comes to igniting — or at least mining — innovation in the workplace.

The general consensus of the session seemed to be that some senior HR leaders are tackling the challenges pretty well — including panelists J. Randy MacDonald, senior vice president of human resources for IBM; Mirian Graddick-Weir, executive vice president of human resources for Merck & Co. Inc.; Richard Floersch, executive vice president and CHRO for McDonald’s Corp.; and Daniel Sullivan, executive vice president of human resources for Qualcomm Inc. — while most HR leaders still, and sadly, are not.

Leading off the Senior Executive Roundtable, subtitled HR’s Role in Driving Innovation and Growth, moderator Susan Meisinger, author, speaker and former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, presented findings from a recent Human Resource Executive® poll suggesting all is not well in the land of HR and corporate innovation.

Citing first an IBM survey showing global HR leaders in agreement that driving creativity and innovation is their No. 1 business challenge, Meisinger went on to present some of the HRE innovation survey results, showing virtually half of the HR executives polled not doing anything about it. Though a majority, 70 percent, said HR plays a significant or somewhat significant role in fostering innovation at their organizations, a whopping 71 percent said they don’t use any screening tools designed to bring in creative and innovative candidates, 53 percent don’t tie performance-management systems to driving it and 53 percent don’t even have a formalized suggestion system in place.

“The takeaway for me in all this,” Meisinger said , “is we all think these things matter, but most of us are not doing something about it.” Second takeaway, she added, “it’s difficult; if it were easy, we’d all be doing it.”

Interestingly, and almost as a juxtaposition to it’s being difficult, one of the strongest admonishments of HR’s failure to drive innovation and growth came from MacDonald: “Five years ago, we launched something called IBM Think Place,” he said. “We burdened this thing with so much bureaucracy and so many policies [something HR is all too prone to apply], that we blew it up. In many ways, the informal system is the best one for generating ideas.”

MacDonald and the others also shared their successes in this quest for creativity. Some included: IBM’s Think Future, which recently let employees engage in real-time expertise-sharing to arrive at five new ideas for the company’s future workforce; Qualcomm’s Innovation Network, which allows employees to submit ideas to peers for instant collaboration and communication, regardless of who gets there first; Merck’s program that sends teams of HR practitioners to nonprofit companies where they collaborate to help them build new HR processes; and McDonald’s innovation center, a mock store where managers can brainstorm applications for their markets.

So what’s slowing most of HR down in this arena? Meisinger asked. Fear of failure? The notion that risk equals failure?

“Let’s face it,” said MacDonald. “I’ve never been to a party to celebrate a failure, but bottom line, there’s a lesson learned in every one. There’s also merit in perseverance.” Some of the strongest innovations at IBM, he added, were achieved because HR got its policies out of the way and those with good ideas “kept going in the face of all odds.”

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