1.3 Reflecting on innovation
Innovation is perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of human history. Speech, laws, agriculture, the wheel, metalworking, glass, writing, mathematics, printing, medicine, electricity, flight and computing are all aspects of far-reaching innovations in human history.
With regard to organisations, even the briefest of internet searches on innovation should reveal that there are many thousands of management videos, gurus, books and journal articles exploring and exhorting innovation and how organisations, especially businesses, and individuals should and could be doing more of it.
Innovation is thus considered the lifeblood of organisations: the essential element or imperative that ensures an organisation’s efficiency, competitiveness or uniqueness, and, ultimately, the success of an organisation. This is not to mean that all organisations must generate the innovations themselves – some organisations adopt the innovations provided by others.
In an environmental context, organisations are often seeking or tasked with providing ‘innovative’ solutions to many environmental concerns. Faced with many environmental issues and concerns, innovation is often heralded as providing a solution to environmental problems under the aegis of ‘doing things differently’, ‘joining up our thinking’, ‘installing new technology’, ‘providing a new solution to the problem’, ‘solving the problem’ and so on.
Equally, many innovations have been linked to major environmental consequences: oil distillation, the combustion engine, pesticides, urbanisation and nuclear energy, to name but a few. Innovations may not be as environmentally positive as the word innovation suggests.
All this is both heartening and disheartening in that it presents a problem. What is innovation? We will consider an exact definition in a moment, but the next activity prompts you to reflect on what you currently understand by innovation in relation to organisations.
Activity 5 Innovation in organisations
Select an organisation that you engage with that you consider to be innovative in its activities and functions. Choose an organisation that is not overtly ‘environmental’ or engaging in environmental innovations. Remember, an organisation does not have to ‘dream up’ the innovation itself to be innovative. What do you consider to be the hallmark(s) of innovation by this organisation?
Provide your answer...
My chosen organisation is a local restaurant. I think it is innovative in the way it allows customers to book a table online and also provides menus online, often along with special offers and discounts. This makes it easier for me to decide if I want to eat there and might just persuade me to book a table. It is also trying to innovate in terms of sourcing local ingredients and supporting local suppliers.
The hallmark of these innovations is that it is trying to redefine what it is that a restaurant does by offering the customer ease of use and supporting the local economy. It has to be said that neither of these are particularly innovative in themselves (many restaurants offer this), but it is new to this restaurant and its customers.
It is not always easy to determine what constitutes innovation. Much depends on context and timescales: what is judged as innovation, when, by whom and over what timescale? Organisations might engage in innovation for a number of reasons including profit and maintaining a competitive advantage. Innovation can also carry the risk of failure. As if this were not enough to consider, there is also another dimension: where and when does innovation occur in an organisation? The next activity asks you to reflect on this.
Activity 6 Where and when?
Using the same organisation and innovations that you explored in Activity 5, identify where the innovative practices in that organisation occur.
Provide your answer...
The innovations in the restaurant occur in different parts of the organisation. The related innovations are ‘located’ in the kitchen and among the chef and cooking staff. There may also be some input from the owners and senior managers. Innovations in the ICT system could be ‘located’ in the management team and also any external organisations managing the web-based booking systems and external advertising. Another locus of innovation could, of course, be the restaurant’s customer base.
Your answer may reveal that innovation can occur in different ways and in different parts of an organisation. If considering a business organisation, for example, it could be innovation in accounting processes, innovation in ideas and design, innovation in manufacturing processes or innovation in sales approaches – perhaps all having some or no effect in terms of the environmental performance of the organisation. Innovation in fundraising or services provided might be more evident in a non-profit organisation. New forms of policy and regulatory practices might be identified as innovation in the context of a governmental body. Innovations relating to internal decision-making structures and processes could apply to any organisation. If you considered the same organisation over time, it is likely that the type and ‘location’ of innovations themselves would change.
These activities should prompt some initial reflections on innovation as a shift away from ‘business as usual’ and doing something differently. But to explore innovation in relation to environmental management more closely, a more detailed understanding of innovation is required.