HR's Strategic Role in Innovation

HR's Strategic Role in PackagingHistorically, Human Resources (HR) has not played a very strategic role in innovation. This needs to change. HR needs to support the culture change to enable innovation; and the upcoming generation isn’t going to settle for an ‘administrative-only’ role.

Innovation is primarily a social thing. Really. While processes are important, ideas come from interactions between and among humans. At the 2nd Open Innovation Summit and at the BIF-6 conference this came through loud and clear. The most fundamental asset a company has is its humans. So, wouldn’t you think the organization assigned to maximize (20th century business = manage) that resource is critical to a company’s success?

Companies are good at managing tangible, concrete, known assets, and they try to manage humans the same way. Business schools, corporate training etc. don’t do well teaching us how to ‘manage’ or ‘measure’ social assets – to train, support, and enable people to create the social networks that enable the flow of knowledge, not the storage of knowledge, needed for innovation. Hence, the current debate on whether big companies can really innovate again.

Well, what kind of things could HR start to do? HR can

  • Put strategically-focused people into decision and influence making positions.
  • Help design the organization’s structure, reinvent/innovate roles & responsibilities, to increase multi-discipline knowledge flows, internally and with external partners and provide tools.
  • Address organizational cross-functionally and cross-disciplinary challenges
  • Train people to develop the competency of applied learning, with reward and recognition.
  • Help the organization overcome FEAR -of losing control, the unknown, looking stupid, failing, punishment, peer pressure, etc. through shaping the culture, encouraging the needed leadership and providing some tools to help overcome fear.

Obviously this list is not complete. And this sounds a bit formidable (okay, it is). But it can be done. Believe it or not, a stodgy, 160+ year old company in a perceived boring old industry is one of the best in class at using HR strategically for innovation. Menasha Packaging , in the middle of Wisconsin, is using HR in ways I’ve virtually never seen before…with very positive, and obvious, results. So, give it a try. You don’t have to remake all of HR, try with a small step, and see where it goes.


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Deborah Mills-ScofieldDeb, founder of Mills-Scofield LLC, is an innovator, entrepreneur and non-traditional strategist with 20 years experience in industries ranging from the Internet to Manufacturing with multinationals to start ups. She is also a partner at Glengary LLC, a Venture Capital Firm.

Deborah Mills-Scofield

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