Fostering Workplace Innovation, Part 1

By Frank Kenna

There were a couple of good articles in Sunday’s (March 31) The New York Times on innovation.  What I found interesting was that they were in two separate sections, Business and Opinion, and focused on two opposite demographics, students and “gray hairs.”

Both articles are highly relevant to the workplace so I’m going to blog about them in two parts, starting with the students today and the older generation next time.

The first piece was an editorial written by Thomas Friedman titled, “Need a Job?  Invent It.”  It speaks to innovation in the classroom, which is of course where our future employees come from.  It also suggests some lessons for today’s managers. 

Freidman’s thrust is that teaching the old way is obsolete.  Memorizing lists of dates and facts is ridiculous in an age where they can instantly be looked up on Google.  What’s really needed is the capacity to innovate, along with the “skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration,” which he suggests are far more important than academic knowledge.  Freidman quotes a manager who said, “We can teach new hires the content… but we can’t teach them how to think – to ask the right questions – and to take the initiative.”

I can see how a different classroom experience would produce the type of employee I’m always looking to hire – people who can think on their feet, solve problems and think of creative, innovative solutions to problems.  Don’t we all want that? 

So much of school today is “putting in the time” to get the diploma, resulting in a somewhat demotivated employee who has been dulled by the school experience.  In fact, the article noted a recent Gallup survey that showed student engagement going from 80% in fifth grade to 40% in high school.  But imagine if those same students were presented with daily challenges that encouraged them to think creatively, work together and innovate.  The employee educated that way who eventually walks though our front door would be a lot different from what we managers are currently getting.

What can we, as non-educators, do about this?  Being aware of the problem is the first thing.  Then discussing it with anyone connected to education is something we can all do, whether we’re at our kid’s teachers conferences or talking to a school administrator at a cocktail party.  This is important stuff, as innovation is critical to our economic future. 

This leads me to my next blog, which asks the question, “Where exactly IS innovation in the workplace coming from?”  Hint:  It’s not from those kids just out of school. 

Frank Kenna III
April 2, 2013

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