Innovation is a prerequisite for entrepreneurial success. There is therefore hardly any company that does not want to be innovative. In practice, however, there are few organisations that can claim to cultivate a collective innovation culture. Such a culture would be the basis for sustainable innovation that is not dependent on individual visionaries or lucky encounters. To create such a culture, the concept of the Corporate University can serve as a breeding ground. As an institution for the development of innovation, it can show companies from all sectors how to reorganise the search for innovation in order to get closer to the goal of being an innovative organisation.
How innovations nip in the bud
To understand how to increase a company’s ability to innovate, it helps to understand what nip this ability in the bud. Restrictive standards are the deadliest poison for innovation. For norms free us from the compulsion to critically question our actions and (self-)constructed truths. Such standards occur in a wide variety of places in the economy. Sometimes it is infinitely long approval processes, sometimes steep hierarchies with firmly assigned, free-flowing band-like partial work steps and sometimes a working culture geared to efficiency, in which no work step should deviate from the requirement specification, let alone make a mistake. For an organization contaminated with such a culture, it seems almost impossible to be organically innovative. Too much the restrictive norms have poisoned the culture of the organization and paralysed it. The employees, the source and driving force of innovation, need an inspiring and motivating atmosphere. Only when this cultural prerequisite is fulfilled can further innovation destructors such as lack of leadership competence, lack of resources or compulsive resistance to change be detected and remedied.
The care of a flowering green meadow
In the context of innovations, it seems more purposeful to use the above argumentation to promote the development and care of a blooming green meadow instead of cultivating exotic, inedible plants with high pressure and poisonous fertilizers; even if the green meadow occasionally shows some weeds for this purpose. Regarding the economy, this means that regardless of the company-specific context, a large number of ideas should be promoted which are not restricted by any restrictions. Employees should be encouraged to question the prevailing paradigms and framework conditions in order to come up with many new ideas. As Victor Hugo once said:“A utopia is the truth of tomorrow“.
Corporate University: Concept for promoting a collective innovation culture
Recognizing the basic problem of finding innovation is one thing, and dealing with it successfully is another and much more difficult. One solution is the creation of a Corporate University (CU), which enhances the innovative capacity of a company, in which the desired greenfield location can be offered without having to suffer from the daily operational business. Specifically, a new department is to be set up or – for tax and other reasons – a new sister company, which will report directly to the top management. This direct connection to the top level of the hierarchy seems elementary, because it already symbolizes the strategic importance of the CU in structural terms, which increases its acceptance within the company. In this CU, future-oriented innovations are then developed in cooperation with employees from a wide variety of specialist and management lines of the company. For a limited period of time, deserved employees are released from their routine work in order to devote themselves to creativity and innovation development. A combination with the further development of the participants‘ personal skills is also obvious. In this way, employees at the CU can contribute the skills they have acquired in the innovation process and at the same time benefit from further training, which is essential in today’s rapidly changing environment.
Several advantages in one go
One advantage of this centralized innovation development within a CU is the temporary release of operationally experienced workers from the stress of everyday life, which usually prevents them from trying new things, making mistakes, going down unfamiliar paths or renouncing the efficiency culture – albeit only briefly. In addition, the cooperation and integration of different departments can be easily organized and coordinated, which not only provides a multitude of different competences for innovation development, but also broadens acceptance of the introduction of innovation through the participation of different departments. And last but not least, a CU raises awareness of innovation processes, which increases the probability that graduates of the CU perceive and tap innovation potential in the workplace during their further operative career.
The cornerstone of a corporate university
It is evident that no generic guidance for the establishment of a CU can be sketched that meets the specific needs of each company. It would also be presumptuous to propagate a generally valid detailed concept. Nevertheless, it seems viable to name four basic pillars that are jointly responsible for the stability of a CU: (1) the environment as an oasis of well-being, (2) the employees as co-operators, (3) the resources as a rock in the air, and (4) the company as a whole.
Surroundings as an oasis of well-being
As explained in the introduction, people need an inspiring and motivating environment for the development of their creativity. Free from stress, pressure, anxiety or obsessive norms. On the one hand, the CU can and must therefore, through its autonomy, relieve the employee of the burden of everyday business and thus be a refuge for the development of creativity; on the other hand, completing the CU must not trigger any fear of existence. This means that graduates must be actively promoted on their further career path, whereby this targeted support should be known and accepted in the company. In other words, participation in the CU must not be a dead-end street and must not be perceived as such, because otherwise it cannot function as an oasis of well-being. Rather, participation in the CU must be regarded as a career milestone, which radiates prestige and is perceived as a reward for meritorious work.
Employees as cooperators
Empirical studies show that innovations are most likely to be developed in interdisciplinary, heterogeneous teams. The higher the degree of innovation, the more so. It therefore seems evident that the best possible cooperation of all team members is an elementary goal. The basis for achieving this goal is an innovation manager with high social and team competence as well as a basic willingness to cooperate. The CU is not only able to meet this requirement, but can also scale its fulfillment in the organization through further training.
Resources as a rock in the surf
From the point of view of those responsible, resources (time, finances, skills, etc.) are always too scarce. This applies all the more to the development of innovation, in which, as mentioned above, time and space are usually lacking in day-to-day business and financial resources often only flow when the company is prospering. However, a CU can not only explicitly create time and space for innovation development. Rather, transparent, autonomous and stable financing can be built up by patenting the innovations developed at the CU and by granting licences to third parties or within the Group. This inclusion of the Return on Investment (RoI) aspect also strengthens the legitimacy of the CU within the organization. However, it should not be forgotten that in addition to its function as an innovation driver, the CU usually assumes other tasks within the organization that cannot be quantified as easily as this (e. g. training, employee surveys or review and introduction of compliance guidelines).
Company as a whole
The legitimacy and acceptance of a CU within the company as a whole is the basis for the functioning of its concept. Poor and half-hearted implementation jeopardizes optimal design, employee commitment and the provision of the necessary resources. In addition, innovations must also be implemented after their discovery and development in order to develop their benefits. For this purpose, it is imperative that the transfer from the development of innovation in the CU to its implementation in the operative units is treated as a matter of priority. For this to be possible, the organisation as a whole must be adequately involved in the innovation process. It is not enough if only the individual departments are specifically taken into account. Rather, the organization must be viewed and managed from a systemic perspective.
This shows that a Corporate University (CU) can act as a promising green field for the innovation culture and thus for the innovation process. In order to fulfil this role effectively, four aspects in particular should be taken into account when establishing a CU as an innovation driver:
- The environment as an oasis of well-being, because otherwise the employees lack the emotional capacity for the innovation process;
- the employees as co-operators, because otherwise the necessary multidisciplinarity cannot be used adequately;
- resources as a field in the surf, because innovations require stable resource support in all forms (finance, time, skills, etc.);
- the company as a whole, because only the entire organization can turn a good idea into a successful innovation.
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