Think Innovation in HR


Think Innovation in HR
by Lathasha Subban

“Innovation” is a common term used in business today. To define it means to encapsulate the different understanding in its diverse usage. The Business Dictionary defines innovation as “ The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay.”[1] It has evolved in its definition and further explained as “To be called an innovation, an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need. Innovation involves deliberate application of information, imagination and initiative in deriving greater or different values from resources, and includes all processes by which new ideas are generated and converted into useful products. In business, innovation often results when ideas are applied by the company in order to further satisfy the needs and expectations of the customers.”[2] The definition in itself has a very clear map that leads to HR in the usage of resources and processes. The two things that HR is the custodian of in any business, as everything starts with an idea generated by a “person”.



The idea or concept of innovation, as best practice, was coupled with the profit generating or product development areas of the business. It has always made sense to link innovation to customer needs and satisfaction outputs, yet presently innovation is envisioned holistically by organisations, with every area of the business expected to innovate. HR is not the exception.

In order to understand HR innovation, we have to create content and context. Since there are numerous definitions of innovation, HR innovation is captioned within the SABPP Competency Model below:

The SA Board for People Practices (SABPP) HR Competency Model Core Competency 5: Citizenship for the Future includes innovation in its definition:

“The ability to drive innovation, optimise technology and contribute to sustainability of organisations.”


Further to its (innovation’s) mention within the Competency Model, the SABPP has incorporated innovation within their National HR Management Standard: Standard 1: Strategic HR Management. Under the standard’s objectives, the HR Strategy must make provision to the change towards innovative thinking to:

“Provide strategic direction and measurements for strategic innovation and sustainable people practices.”

Innovation in HR relates to the responsiveness and the proactive approach used by HR professionals to drive their employee strategies. It speaks to the creative and game changing initiatives that HR utilises to understand, motivate and direct employee thinking, behaviour and needs.   In fact, the National HR Standards Project of SABPP is a good example of national and international HR innovation in action. The whole HR profession has been transformed by developing, applying and auditing the HR standards.

The common questions around innovation is always “where” does it start and by “whom”? Innovation in HR begins with the HR professionals and unfolds within the paradigms of HR practice. Organisations of today are evolving in their methods on how they manage people and leans towards HR to guide them with innovative people practices. Who, how and why you recruit individuals must be aligned to the business vision and growth. Hence innovation within the HR strategy is a crucial part of the business expansion.

Article: Reinventing HR: An extreme makeover[1]

  • HR needs an extreme makeover driven by the need to deliver greater business impact and drive HR and business innovation.
  • While CEOs and top business leaders rate talent as a key priority, only 5 percent of survey respondents rate their organization’s HR performance as excellent. This year, HR’s self-assessment showed virtually no improvement over last year’s.
  • Companies are now moving beyond talk to action, revisiting the required capabilities of the HR function, building HR universities, and modernizing relationships with internal business partners.

With technological development, growing competition and current economic conditions, South African organisations are relying more and more on their human resources and workplace innovations to compete and be successful. The acceleration of digital disruption coupled with rapidly changing competitive markets does not make this an easy proposition for any business. HR is now expected to meet the changing environment with a focus on the following areas.

  • Culture design and development: fashioning a culture that behaves and thinks innovatively to meet business strategy with creativity and uniqueness.
  • Ensure you have talent/resources who think creatively, deliver on products and services that meet customer needs, possess the skills and competencies to drive and deliver on innovation. Recruitment of innovative individuals are important for competitive business advantage, however HR must define the skill set before recruitment, hence defining the innovative skill set required for the position.
  • Reward and recognition is dominant within HR’s area of retention and attraction. Consistent with the SABPP standard on reward and recognition, FNB can be used as an example to magnify the success of recognising employees for their employees’ contribution towards the innovative culture and delivery.
  • Technology and digital platforms have been seen as a leading driver of innovation. Analysts have categorised the drivers of this change into streams: “social”, “mobile”, “analytics” and “cloud” in an effort to understand and manage the change, and it is dually acknowledged that these drivers are related to “technology”.
  • Performance management is a business process that can monitor and evaluate innovation. Business performance is driven by the employees and their individual performance drives business success.

Leadership must set the tone for innovation. HR must guide and groom leadership with development programmes like coaching, innovation awareness training, innovation skills orientation by using gamification/casestudies/videos. Innovation must be included as a major competency in leadership development plans. Leadership has a bigger role to play in managing innovative disruption in all forms. According to recent trends in driving innovative leadership, research has found that effective leadership must ensure the building of organisational capabilities that promulgates innovation routinely. These capabilities[2] are:

  1. Creative abrasion. This capacity for collaborative problem-solving includes the ability to generate a marketplace of ideas through discourse and debate. It requires a healthy culture of listening, inquiry and advocacy, alongside an underlying recognition that breakthrough ideas rarely emerge without diversity of thought and conflict.
  1. Creative agility. This capacity to learn by discovery includes experimenting through quick trial, reflection and adjustment. Typically associated with design thinking, this capability is a mix of the scientific method and the artistic process – in which you act, not plan, your way to the future. 
  1. Creative resolution. This is the capacity to create new and better solutions by integrating diverse ideas, even opposable ones, in unanticipated ways. No one individual or group is allowed to dominate – neither bosses, nor experts. Rather, the team practices a patient and inclusive decision-making approach that allows “both-and” versus “either-or” solutions to emerge.

World Economic Forum: What it takes to be an innovative leader

Think innovation within your HR strategy by developing people strategies that drive the organisations skills and competencies. Innovation in itself cannot be separated from the people who develop and create it. HR professionals have to be involved and evolved in their plans to develop and nurture an innovative culture within their organisations. They have the opportunity to enable the culture and platform(s) that harvest innovative thinking and practice, which is overall the drive of most companies today.
The SABPP is launching their first HR Research in Practice conference at the SABPP 4th Annual HR Standards and Research in Practice Conference on the 27-28 July 2016. This innovative approach has aligned to the SABPP’s is dedication in uplifting HR professionals in their delivery and practice. The Innovation in HR Fact sheet is available to all members of the SABPP and can be requested on




Lathasha Subban is Head: Knowledge & Innovation at the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP).  You can meet her at the 4th Annual HR Standards conference (see below), or email her on 

Follow SABPP on twitter @SABPP1 or Instagram sabpp_1





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