Key points: In order to be competitive and efficient, companies need to innovate continuously, e.g. by introducing new products, designs, marketing campaigns or business processes. People propose innovations either by choice or as part of their job descriptions. The COVID-19 epidemic in Russia has demonstrated that even established systems such as healthcare and law enforcement need to learn how to adapt to drastic change in real time. For this, they must have in-house innovators.
Reality: A survey of employees has revealed that only 6.3% are prepared to put forward new ideas in the workplace. Law enforcement agencies have the fewest 'ex officio' innovators, just 0.4% of all employees. The situation in healthcare is only slightly better, with 1.4% of employees officially tasked with introducing innovation. Both agencies also have relatively few ‘volunteer innovators’ among their employees, 3.2% and 3% respectively. Innovators are even less common in agriculture, at 0.5%.
According to HSE social scientists, only 6.3% of employees in Russian companies have ever proposed new ideas such as product or process improvements in their workplace. The highest number of innovators is found in science and culture, followed by heavy industry. Various uniformed forces have the lowest number of employees willing to step forward with innovative proposals: just about 0.4% in the army, law enforcement and national security agencies. The study findings were presented at the HSE's XXI April International Academic Conference.
The ability to innovate is key for the successful performance of any organisation. Lack of new ideas, outdated products and suboptimal processes can cause businesses to lose competitiveness and government agencies to be mired in inefficiency and bureaucracy.
The Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter was the first to come up with a scientific classification of innovation in the 1930s. He identified five types of innovation involving products, production methods, organisational change, reaching out to new markets, and finding new sources of raw materials. More recently, two other types have been added: marketing innovations (e.g. product design or customer loyalty programmes) and environmental innovations which limit the negative impact of a business’s operations on the environment.
Employees are an essential source of innovation in any company or agency: they generate ideas and reflect on current business practices, coming up with ways to improve or even replace them. In-house innovators come in two types: institutional innovators tasked with introducing and managing innovation as part of their job, and volunteer innovators driven by their own initiative.
But whether innovative ideas find their way into day-to-day practices depends on the organisational infrastructure and corporate climate. Administrators and employees, corporate culture and management style are all factors which can either encourage or hinder innovation, sometimes by nipping new initiatives in the bud. Relatively few Russian companies – just about 9% – can be described as innovation-friendly.
HSE researchers Alena Nefedova and Marina Chernysheva looked at where in Russia innovators are most likely to be found, who they are, what kind of innovations they come up with, and whether these get implemented.
They used data from the 2019 Monitoring Survey of Innovative Behaviour, a constituent module of the nationwide RLMS-HSE. The researchers reviewed the responses of more than 4,100 Russians aged 18 to 65, currently employed by various enterprises and organisations.
They found that only 6.3% of all employees of Russian companies ever proposed new ideas to management. Among those who did, 80% tapped into their own work experience, and one in four relied on that of their colleagues and work teams.
In most cases (77%), innovators proposed improvements to internal processes, such as ways to lower production costs or to enhance current systems of distribution, management, and employee incentives and remuneration.
Employee proposals for new products or services were far less common (18%), although more likely to be implemented.
Institutional, or ex-officio innovators have their proposals implemented in almost 60% of cases, or twice as often as volunteer innovators who only see about one-third of their ideas to be put into practice.
The researchers found certain patterns in the distribution of innovators by industry and type of activity. Institutional innovators are rare in agriculture and especially in law enforcement, at 1.1% and 0.4%, respectively, and much more common at 6% in the spheres of science and culture.
Volunteer innovators in law enforcement are more numerous at 3.2%, but far fewer in agriculture at 0.5%. Something that may seem surprising is that few employees propose innovative ideas in education (2.4%) and healthcare (3%). Once again, science and culture top the list with 8.2% of volunteer innovators, followed by 4.2% in light industry.
Right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, services such as healthcare and law enforcement find themselves operating in unprecedented conditions which require adaptation, flexibility and the ability to learn things on the go. In this situation, frontline initiative is particularly valuable, such as the evolving best practices in response to COVID-19 and their replication in healthcare settings across the country. The fact that healthcare workers tend to avoid initiating change may hinder the uptake of effective treatment protocols and promising experimental methods.
Law enforcement agencies are facing a similar situation. Crowds waiting outside metro stations for the police to manually check their permits to use public transport amidst the lockdown in Moscow was a notorious example of an old system failing to adapt to new challenges. Perhaps the main reason why it happened was the lack of institutional innovators who should have been responsible for managing change.
Although management practices which enable workplace innovation and creativity are increasingly important today, the study reveals that relatively few employers in Russia have systems in place to collect innovative ideas or encourage 'employee self-organising for creative problem-solving'.
Just one in five respondents mentioned that their company had people responsible for innovation management, and one in six reported that employee innovation was encouraged, with financial incentives available for innovators. Nonetheless, according to more than half of the respondents (55%), they felt free to propose innovative ideas to their teams and company management (47%).