As a general rule, the propagation of new ideas in the workplace is still very much a top-down process. However, not all industry sectors work in the same way.

Three researchers at the University of Leuven, Belgium have sounded alarm bells with their recent findings indicating that in-company innovation is still a much too “elite-driven” process. “It is essential that innovation is not only a top-down process, a privilege of the management or some specialised department,” underline the team in their study. Accordingly, the paper calls upon companies to introduce what the Belgian researchers call “innovation mainstreaming”. This means getting all employees, from all occupational groups, to engage in the process of innovation and change as a matter of course. At the moment, this is far from being the case. For their analysis of in-company innovation, the researchers used data from a large-scale survey across five industries: banking, retail, hotels and restaurants, the chemicals industry and the social work sector. In all, more than 900 employees were polled.

Lower-level employees not sufficiently involved

The results are unequivocal. Lower-level employees – both blue- and white-collar – are significantly less engaged in innovation activities. However, the approach does vary from sector to sector. Nearly 60% of employees in hotel and restaurant businesses say they have never been involved in any kind of innovation in their companies. This fact also holds true for 50% of employees in the retail sector. By contrast, the chemicals industry involves more than 70% of its workers in the process of innovation. There are also differences in the ways in which employees are involved. In the social work sector nearly a third of all employees have been delegated an innovative activity, i.e. they have been “invited by their management to generate, develop and introduce innovations in the workplace with a certain degree of autonomy,” says the Leuven report.

Employee innovation and workplace learning intrinsically linked

Apart from the chemicals industry – very much ‘top of the class’ in this study – this ratio falls to under 20 % in the other sectors. The Leuven team notes that in the main, employees are not asked for their views: ideas come from the top and staff are simply told to carry them out. This is a double loss for companies, since involving employees in innovation processes also tends to have a positive impact on their performance. Developed countries are now increasingly trying to promote workplace learning for all employees throughout their working lives. “Employee innovation and workplace learning are intrinsically linked to each other. They are mutually reinforcing and largely dependent on each other,” stresses the paper. However, the two concepts are not interchangeable. “Whereas employee-driven innovation almost automatically leads to workplace learning, the inverse relationship is less direct and
automatic,” the Leuven University researchers point out.