Innovation is no longer a ‘nice to have’. The increasing rate of change is suggesting that organizations need to become more agile, and that comes from moving to a state of continual innovation. The question then becomes: what’s the role of learning and development (L&D) in innovation? And I will suggest that there’s a lot L&D can do.
Let’s be clear. When you’re innovating – when you’re problem-solving, designing, researching, troubleshooting, etc. – you don’t know the answer when you start. So, inherently, it’s learning. It’s not formal learning, but it is learning. And this means that there’s a potential role for L&D.
It’s easy to abrogate responsibility. L&D can insist that their role is formal learning and stick to courses, but there’s a cost. As organizations increasingly embrace self-directed learning and user-generated content, the role for L&D could shrink. There’s another, better approach with a big upside.
L&D could, and should, be looking to supplement courses with a full suite of support for not just learning but also performing, and communicating and collaborating. A full performance ecosystem approach where there are tools to help individuals perform in the moment and develop over time is a strategic opportunity to work more comprehensively to support organizational success. And innovation’s a key component of the full picture. So what, specifically, are we talking about?
L&D's Role in an Innovation
Innovation is, as suggested, about learning. However, innovation is more than just having a good idea. It’s about creating a previously unknown solution that works in practice. That is, an innovation isn’t recognized until it’s contributing in a meaningful way.
That said, innovation does start with new ideas. And innovation happens better the more differing ideas you can generate. Which begins to define what the necessary components of innovation are.
What’s critical, research says, is that innovation comes from tapping into the power of people. The saying “the room is smarter than the smartest person in the room” is truly apt, but there’s a caveat: if you manage the process right. And that’s where L&D comes in: helping people understand what those processes are, and developing the practices that implement the processes.
L&D Develops Innovation Skills
So, at core, L&D’s role is about developing the skills that are involved in innovation. These include how to work and play well together in particular ways. It is a mistake to assume that people have the necessary skills, or even that there’s a set that’s known within the organization. Instead, the opportunity is to identify the skills, raise awareness of the skills, and develop them over time. Sounds like L&D’s role, right?
At core, innovation is about people working together to generate the most ideas and collaboratively develop, test, and refine them. Thus, the elements for employees include knowing how to facilitate idea-generation processes, how to ask questions in ways that will get responses, how to offer support in ways that it will be taken, and more. There are a number of practices that are common and yet less than optimal.
So, for example, brainstorming is commonly implemented via bringing people together, providing a problem, and starting discussion. This is an ineffective strategy, however; it’s better if everyone has individual time to generate their ideas before they’re shared. And that’s just one element.
What is important is that there are nuances around these processes. The ad hoc approaches aren’t sufficient. And expecting that learners have the necessary skills is unfortunately inadequate. Until schools start delivering on the promise of ‘developing the ability to learn’, that responsibility will belong to individual and organizations. And the suggestion here is that it is an organizational opportunity, even an increasing necessity, to capitalize on the possibilities of collaborative learning.
Consequently, it is important to be explicit. What works needs to be shared, including details on the processes, then developing awareness, and providing support for execution.
Facilitating Processes that Practice Innovation
However, the necessary processes go beyond courses to ongoing facilitation. The component skills for innovation, like other learning-to-learn skills, can’t be taught in a vacuum. Such skills are ‘meta’ in the sense that they play a role on top of domain-specific skills. So you need a topic. You can create ‘made up’ topics, but you can also facilitate the skills around pre-existing work. You just need practical tasks that require innovation.
To be sure, you can be creating problems to have teams solve, and then discuss the processes. This is legitimate, and perhaps makes sense initially, but it not sufficient. An alternative, and a desirable one, is to actually engage in real tasks and develop skills around crucial collaboration needs. This is more challenging, as it requires breaking down boundaries and working with different business units, but the benefits are both for real work and the development of skills.
The notion, particularly for a skill not used constantly, is to ensure that there’s continual support and development. For one, process support for effective components such as collaboration and communication can be provided. In addition, development of the skills via coaching, and overall development of the environment via mentoring is important.
L&D Can Foster a Culture of Creativity
And the environment is a real issue. In addition to having successful innovation practices, an additional requirement is a learning culture. If you’re trying to tap into the contributions of your people, you need to make sure that they feel like their contributions are welcomed and valued. And there are many ways that employee engagement may not come into play.
Elements that contribute include diversity, openness, and reflection. Inclusion is the new buzzword, and this means not just tolerating diversity, and not just valuing it, but systematically leveraging it. Similarly, openness to new ideas is critical, welcoming them and systematically evaluating them, not dismissing them. And time to actually generate and process ideas is critical. Organizations that claim they don’t have time for reflection are cutting off the innovation engine.
Finally, most critically, if people feel that they’re in a Miranda Organization (where anything you say can and will be held against you), they’re not going to share. And if they don’t share, you won’t get the ideas that could be the best solutions, the innovation your organization needs.
L&D Can Set the Example and BE Innovative
As a matter of implementation, promoting innovation has little credibility without practice. And so the most valuable component of supporting innovation is in L&D adoption. L&D must become an engine of innovation internally. This is both pragmatic and principled.
On pragmatic grounds, organizational change (and implementing is an organizational change) has been shown to be difficult and liable to be unsuccessful at large scale. Instead, small-scale efforts provide the opportunity to experiment and tune before scaling up. Similarly, it will be hard for L&D to be a credible advocate for innovation without having demonstrated success.
And, on principle, L&D needs to understand innovation, by having determined what the components are and then applying them and refining them. And this is inherently an innovative approach. Similarly, L&D needs to reinvent itself as an innovation engine to continue to cope with the rapid change.
The choice is simple: status quo and quiet extinction, or innovation and growing contribution. It’s time to get moving.