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Nigel Paine

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Learning innovation and great places to work


Nigel Paine takes a look at how learning and innovation can combine to help shape successful organisations.

In Ernst and Young's latest edition of Performance Preview* there is a great article on innovation called Innovating from within. The sub-title offers us the meat of the content: "Businesses need to focus more on the link between innovation, organisational structure and culture, which are key drivers for any successful venture" . 

When we look at innovation it its rare that that the critical link between a culture of innovation and the products of innovation is emphasised. But I have found that innovation is directly related to the quality of the workplace, the extent of shared values and purpose and how staff feel about their employer.

In my experience in hundreds of organisations, I have yet to find a miserable workplace with unhappy staff that is, nevertheless, innovative and creative. The two things: an engaged workforce and the emergence of great ideas, must be linked: engaged workforce, great ideas emerging, and Ernst and Young details this in the article.

"It is a key and increasingly important role for L&D to stimulate ideas, challenge existing practice and create an environment where groups meet to deal with issues and problems."

Their conclusion is that: "Innovating successfully requires employees who buy into the leadership's beliefs and values, and a management structure that supports innovation. It also relies on the allocation of funds . . . staff training and an IT platform to capture, manage and share ideas being generated."

Shared values seems an obvious goal but it is often ignored. Some companies seem to feel that innovation can be delivered by edict! Or by the appointment of a director of innovation. That is so much noise, signifying nothing.

We can unpack the points made in the article. Successful innovation has a number of prerequisites:

  • Shared beliefs and values.
  • Supportive management structure.
  • Allocation of appropriate resources.
  • Learning and development.
  • A way of capturing and sharing ideas.

Does learning have a role here? If you look at the five bullets, three directly involve learning and development. It is, surely, part of the L&D role to help embed the culture of an organisation from the minute an employee joins the company.

It is a key and increasingly important role for L&D to stimulate ideas, challenge existing practice and create an environment where groups meet to deal with issues and problems, whether that is online or face to face or even just to think out loud or be challenged with new ideas.

Think about Pixar University which offers programmes unrelated to animation, but stimulating and challenging for staff. It gets people from across the organisation to engage with one another; it fires in ideas and creates a forum for debate and a crucible for developing those ideas into innovation in the workspace.

There is a happy circle here. Help culture embed; help ideas grow, facilitate cross-workplace communication, bring in new ideas from outside and you set down the seedbed for innovation and create the basis for a great working environment. The better the environment gets, the more innovation occurs, and so on.

I really can't imagine how any organisation will survive in this world if it fails to innovate. Rowan Gibson, who wrote Innovation to the Core, claims that innovation is the only sustainable competitive advantage. So an L&D team that does not see the need to sustain innovation and build a better workplace as part of its role, is on a shoogly hook (as they say in Glasgow).  These ideas are not nice to have, or the extras we eventually get round to, but the core of what the function is all about. And Ernst and Young agree with me.

*Performance Preview is available as a printed magazine, an excellent iPad app and online.

Nigel Paine was given the 2012 Colin Corder award for his contribution to the learning industry. He is a coach, mentor, writer, broadcaster and keynote speaker of international acclaim. He has developed a 'great workplaces' programme, which you can find out more about here and you can read Nigel's blog at or follow him on Twitter.


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