Volume 22, Number 5
Yasser Rahrovani looks at what helps – and what hinders – employee innovation
Today’s adaptable and ubiquitous technology has spread the innovation process to thousands of technology users. Organizations have accordingly employed different approaches to stimulate innovation throughout firms. While some have invested in closed innovation labs, others have implemented more open approaches such as Google’s innovation time-off policy, where employees are given 20 per cent time off to work on projects they’re intrinsically motivated and passionate by.
But which method is more effective in spurring innovation, and under what circumstances?
Ivey Business School Information Systems Professor Yasser Rahrovani aims to understand these questions by studying different innovation labs and digital factories in Canadian Retail, Banking and FinTech industries.
Rahrovani holds a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA and worked in management consulting in his home country of Iran. Eight years ago, Rahrovani and his wife, Azadeh, moved to Canada where he completed his PhD at McGill University before joining Ivey last summer.
“I try to understand psychological mechanisms and dynamics by which individuals or groups become more or less innovative with technology,” Rahrovani says. “IT is increasingly becoming a platform that promotes the emergence of distributed innovations both within and across firms. As a consequence, more and more, organizations rely on several employees within the firm to innovate rather than one specific closed group of innovators.”
While organizations invest millions in different types of resources, Rahrovani’s findings show that not all types of resources are the same in the way they facilitate innovation.
“Innovation is kind of a fuzzy and less structured area,” Rahrovani says. “It’s interesting – in some context certain methods work and in others, they don’t.”
Different resources, different results
One conclusion Rahrovani reached is that “slack resources” can better help people with less innovative personalities to become more innovative. By slack resources, Rahrovani means excessive resources that one has beyond what is needed to do his or her job. He gives multiple examples: excessive knowledge, excessive time for exploration and experimentation, excessive access to new technological features, and excessive support personnel beyond necessary.
Slack resources can be in relationships, too. Rahrovani points to an organization’s knowledge café: When people from very different backgrounds sit together and chat about their projects, even though they are not related to one another.
“Slack resources provide users with relief from daily workload pressures, higher levels of freedom to maneuver, and greater margins for errors,” Rahrovani says. “These will facilitate innovation.”
Paths to innovation: Intrinsic and prosocial motivation
Informed by research in social psychology and technology, Rahrovani’s research looks at two mechanisms by which slack resources facilitate innovation: intrinsic motivation to innovate (i.e., the desire to creatively use IT for self-interest and enjoyment) and prosocial motivation to innovate (i.e., the desire to creatively use IT to help others).
His research shows that while some types of slack facilitate innovation through promoting intrinsic and prosocial motivation, others may hinder innovation when combined with other types. In some types, the relationships are more complex.
“For example, look at knowledge,” Rahrovani says. “If people know too much about a technology, they are less likely to be stimulated to explore and experiment with IT in their work. If they know too little, they do not feel confident to risk and play. In contrast, optimal stimulation for exploration, experimentation and innovation occurs in the middle.”
There are alternate theories, too. Some people demonstrate innovation is more likely when they’re under pressure.
“This is what I’m trying to understand: Maybe one approach doesn’t work all the time,” Rahrovani said. “Maybe initially we need slack, then we need to put them under pressure to finish the project.”
Rahrovani’s research is now extending past individual innovation to look more into how groups innovate together.