Thursday 10 November 2011

No innovation from asking customers


   I guess I should really be posting on the rest of the CIPD conference, not just my own interactive sessions (1,2).  There are a couple of reasons that I’ve not been doing so – firstly I was really struggling to find anything to blog on during the first day of the conference (I think I would have liked Robert Potter’s stuff on Individual Career Equations if I hadn’t tuned up late), and then secondly, I heard so much I could blog on during the second day that I didn’t get any time to post (ie this was a much better day).  And today…. well that will probably be the hangover.

Once of the best sessions yesterday, or one of those that sparked the most controversy was the keynote panel with Vance Kearney from Oracle (and Heather Corby from BT, Jane Marsh from IBM and Samantha Austin-May from ESO – but we’re going to focus on Vance).

And the piece that I want to pick up on from a fairly wide-ranging discussion on innovation was Vance’s comments that you can’t (radically) innovate by asking customers, but instead need to step back and think things through yourself (not through individual brainstorming, but by connection people with different perspectives together – so there was a social media aspect to this conversation too).

This comment seemed to produce a fairly shocked reaction, which I must say surprised me, as I’ve always worked on this basis, and it’s not as if it’s not come up at conferences before.  Anyone most people did seem to accept the point, being unable to think of any innovations which had resulted from talking to customers.  Vance did get challenged by one man, resulting in what some people thought was the first CIPD conference on-stage use of the word ********  - sorry for the deletion, but it would have been the first time I’d have used the word on my blog too (anyway, Vance says he didn’t say it).

Why I thought this was interesting was that it connected, for me, with the point made by Natalie Woodford at GSK on the previous day: that HR’s got too close to its customers and needs to step back in order to be more strategic.

Because maybe this is one big reason that HR’s not having the impact it would like - we’re too busy understanding the business, talking the language of the business, etc, etc, that we’ve lost the ability to innovate.  And hence why all organisations end up following the same ‘best’ practices, and then have to deal with the consequent low levels of engagement.

And actually this was the main thing that was missing from the whole session for me – there was a lot of sound advice on developing a culture of innovation across the business, but hardly anything on innovation within HR.  Yet if you believe the stuff coming out of the MIX, one of the main opportunities for innovation lies in HR.

To capture this opportunity we need to step back, reflect, connect, discuss and create some new approaches.  I’m not suggesting not asking your customers what they want – of course you’ve got to do this.  But that’s not where radically better processes and engagement (which I what I think we need) are going to come from.

No innovation ever came from that.


Henry Ford quote picture credit: Vovici


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  1. Jon, I wasn't at the session so i might be missing something but doesn't the extent to which you innovate by talking to customers depend on the business you are in?

    Retailers like Tesco spend quite a lot of time talking to customers and a lot of what comes out of this drives the changes they make.

    In something like technology, where knowledge of the rapid developments in what is possible is known only to the few, surely innovation is always going to be a more elitist process.

  2. It's a good point Rick. I think this is probably true, to an extent at least - though even in retail bigger innovations like loyalty cards or creating baking bread smells or transparent walls to the back of store areas etc, vs smaller ones like labelling products differently etc, are probably still going to come from internal or broader innovation processes than talking to customers.

    But assuming your point is at least partly true, I wonder which sector HR most resembles today? Ie which model of innovation is must relevant for us?


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