“Start small and let success be contagious”

Henk Volberda

Professor Henk Volberda has been a strong advocate of social innovation for many years.

Companies that invest structurally in this not only perform better on the hard indicators, such as turnover and profit, but also on the soft ones: higher employee satisfaction, less absenteeism and more creativity.

“Organizations can no longer afford not to get started.”

Henk Volberda is busy. In addition to his activities for Erasmus University, he has just completed a book entitled Innovation, you now and the intriguing subtitle ‘It’s not the robots, but it’s your turn’. This has generated a lot of interest in the media. According to him, there is a great need for social innovation. “Technological developments are going very fast at the moment,” he says. ‘Think of artificial intelligence, cloud computing, internet of things…

Then you are really talking about the fourth industrial revolution, after the steam engine, the era of mass production and digitization. And at the same time, most organizations are still largely set up according to the principles of the second industrial revolution, as factories. There is friction, and more and more employees, especially young people, are leaving the companies because they find it boring, because they are not challenged enough, because they have nothing to say. That is an increasing problem for organizations, especially now that the labor market is tight again.” 

Bottomless pit

Although companies invest heavily in new technology, research by Volberda shows that without social innovation they hardly yield. ‘It is then actually a bottomless pit into which you pour money, because if employees cannot, are not allowed or do not want to work with it, then it is of little use and it can even have the opposite effect. Innovation is only 25 percent technological innovation, and no less than 75 percent social. Then you are talking about the skills of people, other, servant leadership, flat organizational forms and co-creation. Our annual survey shows time and time again that companies that invest structurally in ’this bracket of five’ not only perform better on the hard indicators, such as turnover and profit, but also on the soft ones: higher employee satisfaction, less absenteeism, more creativity, etc. .’

Nevertheless, the organizations that pay structural attention to this are still in the minority, notes Volberda. ‘There are of course wonderful examples, such as Koekjesbakkerij Veldt, DSM in Delft and Finext, but it is not really being embraced on a large scale in the Netherlands. That can also be explained, because companies that get started with social innovation have to go through a J-curve. This means that they first perform less: less profit, and also less job satisfaction. It often leads to an increase in the stress level of employees, because they have to do all kinds of things that they didn’t have to do before. Those people will complain and then such a manager thinks: it’s never good, I’m doing this for you. As a result, it is reversed and the employees are even more dissatisfied.”

“Innovation is only 25 percent technological innovation,
and no less than 75 percent social.”

Sense of urgency

According to Volberda, there was a high sense of urgency in most examples where it did work: ‘The company was doing badly, something had to be done. For example, DSM in Delft was on the list to be closed. Yes, then you want to.’ Should you conclude from this that the sense of urgency is not strong enough for most organizations? ‘Yes, maybe. But it also has to do with poor leadership. Social innovation is often professed verbally, but in practice you see that managers fall back into old behavior. Also because they themselves are still controlled from control. Then it will only be frustrating for employees and it is better not to start.

You also see old behavior among employees, for example at organizations that introduce flexible workplaces. In practice, employees from the same department huddle together instead of making contact with people from other departments.”

Does Volberda have a few tips for the organizations that really want and are also willing to go through the pain? ‘Yes, first of all: know what you are getting into. Keep in mind that you will not immediately see successes and that people will not immediately be enthusiastic about it. They will complain about the new way of working and say that everything used to be better. You have to get through that, you have to stick to your course and know where you want to go. And at the same time, second: don’t do it all at once throughout the organization. The big bang theory is very dangerous for organizations. Start small and make success contagious. And three, also important: create a place for people who really don’t want to or can’t, if at all possible. I was recently at an IT company where they have an entire department of programmers with autism. Those guys and girls are doing an incredible job, but they do need a bit of structure. You shouldn’t make them self-managing or give them a flexible place, because that’s not going well. So a little diversity is welcome.’

‘The big bang theory is very dangerous for organizations’

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