The term social innovation can be traced back to the early 19th century, which is long before technological-economic connotations determined the today’s understanding of innovation. Why is it relevant to every business today?
Social Innovation: Its Origins
Originally, it was associated with the socialist revolution and later it became associated with social reforms taking place especially in the areas of education and work. At the turn of the 20th century, a new meaning of the term emerged: social innovation as the adoption of a new behaviour or a new practice. These practices encompassed all areas of society, such as gender relations, education, management, governance as well as everyday life, established habits and cultural customs. More recently, the term has become universal label for any social phenomenon and process of change.
Today, the importance of social innovation as a means of addressing social, economic, political and environmental challenges of the 21st century has long been recognised at European and global level. There is a growing consensus among practitioners, policy makers and the research community that social innovation can and does enhance the society’s capacity to act. But how is this relevant to businesses, especially smaller ones?
Taking Social Innovation into the Workplace
Social Innovation addresses social needs by social means. ‘Social’ in the context of work-place innovation refers to non-technical innovations and emphasises high quality jobs and employee participation. Social Innovation assumes that people in need take the initiative to address social problems. However, people only start doing this when they are empowered, and one condition that ensures such initiatives is when people have meaningful work. In the work place, this means we need to think about how to encourage people to participate. Work-place social innovation requires employee engagement and involvement through the process of bottom up innovation.
Workplace Innovation in Practice
Although work-place innovation can take many forms, its hallmark is employee engagement (i.e. a supportive organisational culture) and employee involvement (i.e. employee involvement in decision-making).
Work-place innovation (WPI) is about two things: (1) the process of innovation and (2) the subject of innovation. The process of WPI is to engage and involve employees when the organisation develops or implements renewal and change. This ‘bottom up’ approach means that employees have a say in the process. The subject of innovation is not so much about new products and services, or a new business model or exploiting new technology, but the renewal and improvement of ‘soft’ and ‘intangible’ issues. For example, work organisation (i.e. good job design, self-managing team work), human resource management (i.e. measures that engage employees), employment relations that enhance employee commitment and supportive technologies rather than ‘steering and controlling’ technologies.
The purpose of WPI is to contribute to organisational performance (i.e. efficiency, competitiveness and innovative capability) and quality of work (i.e. productive, healthy and meaningful jobs) simultaneously. WPI therefore enables organisations to adapt to new circumstances and to adopt new technologies, by making better use of human talents and capabilities. People are at the heart of WPI in terms of idea generation, improvement and transformation of processes and outcomes.
The challenge for most enterprises is how to implement a strategy to promote social innovation in the workplace. Check out the COOP-IN’s Top Ten Tips for Supporting Innovation in the Workplace.
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