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Creative employees, innovative businesses; a must-have competitive advantage

Today’s business world demands much more than just employees coming in to do what is expected of them, to the best of their abilities. Today’s workplace demands employees to be creative and for businesses to be innovative. As customer’s knowledge about available options improves and as the needs of customers evolve, it has become imperative that employees adapt to the changing times.

In an era where robots are going to play increasingly important roles in the workplace—where technology is disrupting the way organisations operate—human employees can no longer get by doing just about enough. If the job of an employee can be done better by a robot, chances are, that job will go to the robot. What then would become of humans in the workplace? The employee of today must therefore be one that is creative, always looking at newer and better ways of doing his or her job.

It has been established that as automation-led innovation become the order of the day in the 21st-century industry, business executives and professionals must come to realise the increasing importance of soft skills such as employees’ creative abilities. Important skills such as creativity and innovation have become a necessity now more than ever before. As more of the hard skills part of the job are taken over by robots, there is an increasing need for soft skills.

Although both terms, creativity and innovation, are often used interchangeably, the truth is that the two are far from being synonymous. According to a January 2015 article by American psychologist, author, and science journalist Daniel Goleman, creativity and innovation form a continuum. Creativity is at the front end with innovation being, ultimately, the result of creativity. According to the article, which was published by the World Economic Forum, creativity is about coming up with new and useful ideas. Innovation, on the other hand, is about the successful implementation of those ideas.

According to Goleman, who is also the author of the best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, a business can be blessed with a lot of creativity but it could still not be considered innovative. The lack of innovation in businesses could be as a result of several factors. These include a lack of motivation among employees and a lack of proper systems and structures to take advantage of creative ideas. Organisations in which new ways of doing things are not encouraged, accepted, appreciated, and adapted are those that lack innovation.

It is however important to note that an organisation can have all the structures and systems necessary to be innovative, but still suffer from a lack of innovation. This is because employees can lack that innovative behaviour. Employee innovative behaviour, referred to in service literature as IB, has been defined by some as “an initiative from employees concerning the introduction of new processes, new products, new markets or combinations of such into the organisation.” Employees can have as many creative ideas as possible but still lack the innovative behaviour to implement those ideas.

Evidently, creativity in employees is not enough. Creativity can be taken for granted. Great ideas can be running through an organisation—ideas that would lead to a dramatic upturn in the fortunes of the business. However, nothing will happen because either the system does not encourage innovation or employees might lack innovative behaviour.

The importance of having creative employees backed by innovative internal systems is that the business gains a competitive advantage in the marketplace. It is a fact that innovation is the cornerstone of organisational sustainability. Service businesses, which traditionally rely heavily on the expertise of their employees, are in need of creative employees and innovative systems. Businesses that fail to innovate will not survive for long in businesses.

The ongoing discussion calls for businesses to be more creative in bringing new recruits on board. While shortlisting or headhunting, the prospect’s portfolio must be properly assessed to find out how the one had handled situations in past jobs. During interview sessions, prospective employees must be presented with questions that bring out their creativity. Asking questions that require answers that can easily be gleaned from the Internet is not the way to go. Questions should be open-ended and should present real-life scenarios that would task the candidate to become creative.

For employees who are already in the employ, there are enough studies to show how organisations can generate innovative behaviour from employees. For instance, there was a 2018 study that sought to show that the innovative behaviour of employees was tied to workplace happiness as well as support from co-workers. The study used survey data from 328 employees from different departments in four- and five-star hotels in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The title of the study was “Determinants of Employees’ Innovative Behaviour” and was published in the March 2018 edition of the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management.

There was another study that linked innovative work behaviour with workplace spirituality. Workplace spirituality has been defined as an “employee’s attempt to find ultimate meaning and purpose in his or her work and to strengthen his or her interconnectedness.” In other words, employees should be aided to find purpose in what they do if they are to come up with creative ideas.

That study also found a link between innovative work behaviour, perceived organisational support and innovative work behaviour. The study was titled, “Workplace Spirituality, Perceived Organizational Support and Innovative Work Behavior: The Mediating Effects of Person-Organization Fit”. It was published in the March 2017 edition of the Journal of Workplace Learning. This means that it is the responsibility of organisations to help their employees become creative.

Knowledge sharing has also been linked with innovative work behaviour. This was brought to the fore in a publication in the January 2014 edition of the International Journal of Hospitality Management. The study was titled “Hospitality Employee Knowledge-Sharing Behaviors in the Relationship between Goal Orientations and Service Innovative Behaviour”. Another study titled, “How Knowledge Sharing Encourages Innovative Work Behavior through Occupational Self-Efficacy? The Moderating Role of Entrepreneurial Leadership” came to a similar conclusion. The results of this particular study were published in the June 2022 edition of the Global Knowledge Memory and Communication journal.

Both studies noted that knowledge sharing positively affects employees’ innovative work behaviour. In other words, if an organisation wants to have creative employees, it should have systems that encourage the sharing of knowledge among staff.

One of the most overlooked means by which customer-facing employees can generate newer and more exciting ways of serving customers is through interactions with those same customers. It is a fact that the best source of information about customers is customers. If customers are not happy with a particular offering, they will voice their displeasure first to those at the front line. By getting close to customers, front-line employees are in the best position to glean valuable information about how to delight customers.

By sieving the ideas they obtain from customers through their unique understanding of the organisation they work for, front-line employees are best placed to come out with the most creative ideas. Having creative employees with abilities to transform information into product and process innovations is a must for today’s business. It is no longer enough for front-line employees to just serve customers.

A discussion about creativity and innovation among employees cannot be complete without touching on the importance of leadership and management. The importance of immediate supervisors, unit and departmental heads, managers, and even business owners to the innovativeness of the business cannot be overstated. For starters, it is the job of leadership to put in the right structures and systems that encourage innovation. Therefore, if the business stifles creativity and innovation, then the fault must be placed at the doorstep of leadership.

Additionally, it is the job of leadership to encourage creativity and innovative behaviour in the workplace. As a matter of fact, it is known that the leadership styles of some managers are enough to kill any form of creativity and innovative behaviour of employees. Autocratic leaders are known to smother any creativity and innovativeness among team members. By not consulting with staff and taking what staff say into consideration, the autocratic leader strangles all creativity and innovation from the organisation.

The important role of creativity and innovation in the fortunes of any organisation cannot be overemphasised. Studies show that a business’ competitiveness, success, and survival rest on the ability of its employees. Organisations that will win on the market are those who have within their ranks employees who can generate creative ideas and have the initiative to turn those ideas into workable plans. This calls for businesses to treat the issues of creativity and innovation with all the seriousness necessary.

The success story after success story coming in from a company like 3M Corporation should make it clear that there is money to be made from encouraging creativity and innovative work behaviour among employees. 3M has shown, with successful everyday products from Scotch tape to Command hooks to Post-It notes, that creativity and innovation pay. Are you aware that even the soles on the boots worn by NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong to leave the first human footprint on the moon was developed from 3M?

There are businesses that are struggling on the market, who need just one brilliant idea to turn things around. Interestingly, that idea might be in the head of a single frontline employee in the organisation. By not making creativity and innovation paramount in the organisation, that business is going to continue to lose out. Eventually, that business is going to suffer irreparable damage, all because it did not appreciate the importance of creativity and innovation.

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