The word “innovation” is thrown around so much in business that at times it seems like just a buzzword- a canned excuse to change how things are done. The word has become so overused, that it’s easy to lose sight of the value of genuine innovation to business strategy.
Today’s businesses operate in a complex environment. Climate change, skills gaps in the labor force, and the need to maintain healthy margins in the face of financial pressures are just some of the challenges that we face. Innovation, when correctly implemented, can add value to existing strategies and enable targets to be met.
The impetus towards innovation is especially strong in the UAE. Innovation is a central pillar in the delivery of UAE Vision 2021 and the government’s plan to shift to a knowledge-based economy. There is a clear recognition from businesses that genuine innovation has the capacity to give us an advantage in the marketplace. But where do the earth-shaking ideas that we call innovation come from? Some companies are turning to “innovation consultancies,” paying millions of dirhams for third-party consultants to tell them how to improve their processes and products.
Yet, that kind of investment begs the question: “Why are we looking outside the business when our employees sit closest to our problems?” When we outsource idea generation, we are adding to our expenses and telling our employees that they’re not paid to think. Also, is the final product really our own innovation? Such a scenario stifles innovation within an organization.
An employee-based program that is equitable and has built-in incentives can generate both innovation and engagement. It promotes true grassroots innovation from within the organization. The impact of a well-run suggestion scheme is something that we at Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA) know firsthand. EGA has had a suggestion scheme since 1981. Just since 1999, it has generated over 220,000 actionable ideas that have delivered more than US$70 million audited savings to the business.
By opening up direct access to the company’s decisionmakers, EGA has nurtured a deeply motivated and loyal workforce. More than 600 of our employees have worked at EGA for more than 25 years. Here’s how you can go about implementing an employee suggestion program in your organization:
1. Empower the employee The first step to implement a robust scheme is recognizing your employees’ potential to innovate. When employees feel ignored, they may think that innovation is futile, but when they feel listened to, they speak up. Employees responsible for the workplace have an in-depth knowledge of their jobs, and this enables them to generate ideas that are incremental and foster a work environment which makes jobs easier and safer to do. Incremental innovation or improvements are imperative as they add and sustain value to existing processes, products and services. In the long run, such innovation plays an important role in maintaining the organization’s competitive position in the market.
In other words, step away from the suggestion box and provide a forum to employees that puts them in charge. At EGA, supervisors directly assess, scrutinize and provide feedback on an idea. This means that on any given day, employees can discuss directly with their managers and entrust them with their ideas in a safe space. On top of that, we have also found that transparent processes with categories and criteria reassures our employees that the scheme is not a black hole. A successful submission has a clear journey. Likewise, if an idea is unsuccessful, one’s supervisor can explain why the idea is not feasible and work with the employee to make it a worthwhile suggestion.
2. Sharing the benefits Companies renowned for their innovation like Google and Facebook invest significant amounts to nurture employee innovation schemes. Investment helps employees to understand the real value that their input has had on the business. At EGA, we consider the monetary value of every idea we receive and ensure that we have enough budget to turn it into a reality, and share the returns. The employee, the supervisor and the department representative all benefit monetarily, sharing a percentage of the savings from the implementation of their idea.
3. Celebrate success together Celebrating employees’ innovation is another simple but enormously impactful way to endorse the scheme and gain loyalty and buy-in. Be it an internal awards event where you recognize employees in front of their peers or a nation-wide competition, you will stand to motivate your internal innovators and develop a reputation as a company carried by its people.
No matter what route you take, no one can know the business better than the people who live and breathe the operations every day. When we empower them to share their feedback and make suggestions, we give them a stake in the future and accelerate our mutual success.