Companies need to ask themselves: can innovation be taught?

Today's world is unmistakably digital. At the World Economic Forum this year, it was said that the world has become a computer. Technology is taking over every aspect of our lives, including the workplace, and the jobs of the not-too-distant future will look completely different.
Carys Richards, senior vice president of Human Resources for Middle East and Africa at Mastercard
In fact, nearly 40% of core skills required across occupations in South Africa are predicted to be wholly different by 2020 and 65% of children who entered primary school last year will hold jobs that currently do not exist.

In the present, there are concerns of a skills gap in the workforce, especially with regards to technological skills, and how to fill that gap with the right people. Across Africa, employers across the region already identify inadequately skilled workforces as a major constraint to preparing their businesses for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, including 41% of all firms in Tanzania, 30% in Kenya, 9% in South Africa and 6% in Nigeria.

Global technology leaders are well aware of this gap - partially even responsible for it. And that’s not a bad thing. What I mean is that the technology sector today is experiencing unprecedented levels of innovation, unlocking new opportunities for millions of people and businesses around the world. As a consequence, people have become more important than ever before in helping realise the full potential of both technology, and the innovation it brings.

It is up to corporations then, to take the lead in closing this skills gap, enabling their people to reskill, relearn and stay updated with the latest tools to be able to innovate continuously.

But how does a company achieve this?

To answer this question, an organisation needs to consider two fundamental questions.

Firstly, what does innovation mean to an organisation internally?

Innovation is not just about building the latest technology or inventing something completely new. Innovation is also about the small achievements that make everyday work more efficient and simple.

Some of the most interesting innovations I hear about are when a team thinks creatively and differently about an existing process or approach that has served us well for years but needs a refresh. This could be to keep up with customer or user demands, or simply makes it easier for employees to go about their everyday work.

That’s why a business that wants to be successful, must focus on achieving innovation within not just its core business, but across all its functions. Innovation needs to be cascaded throughout the company with the responsibility in everyone’s hands to innovate and think differently in the work they do.

Which brings us to the second question.

Can innovation be taught?

This is a question that Human Resources leaders ask themselves all the time – and at Mastercard, we firmly believe – yes. But for innovation to happen at all levels of the company, it is necessary for a range of enablers to support this: talent development, organisational design and structure, and evolving our thinking on leadership.

Regardless of their job, employees must have access to the knowledge and tools to innovate every day and enjoy a culture in which people feel empowered to try new things. Training employees across all functions on the latest technological innovations and tools is also crucial. It is only then that they can progress on new ideas like Design Thinking which can be applied within their own fields of expertise.

For instance, at Mastercard, we are leveraging Virtual Reality (VR) to help deliver sophisticated training solutions for our people. A practical example of this is the training programme we have developed for our sales force, where VR is used as a realistic and immersive environment for our sales teams to experience engaging with a customer.

We also recently followed a start-up over the course of a year to video document their business journey, which we built into a training programme for our emerging leaders. The video documentary provided real situations the start-up was facing, which our emerging leaders needed to make decisions on and could then see the real-life consequences of those decisions.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) too has its own use-cases in HR. The technology is showing significant potential in resource management, organisational planning and identifying required skillsets across markets. By leveraging data analytics, AI enables an organisation to identify the current set of skills in their workforce and where there may be future gaps, ultimately helping to inform where investments need to be made for additional resources.

Ultimately focusing on people is key

While it presents several benefits, the use of technologies like AI and VR will not do away with people in HR, but rather complement them and enable them to achieve more innovation within this space.

But, technical skills are only part of the equation. An organisation’s ability to deliver results now and in the future will depend on building and maintaining a winning culture. That foundational premise and commitment help to attract the best people from diverse backgrounds.

One of the key parts to this is a sincere commitment to inclusion and employee experience that creates a sense of community, unified purpose and belonging. Everyone can and should feel that their voice is heard and valued. This care and respect for people at an individual level is what encourages unique insights, new ideas and a passion for the work we do that ultimately drives innovation.

After all, the greatest technology will need bright, dedicated people to continually advance the conversation and think about what’s next. It’s for that reason that people should remain at the core of innovation.
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About the author

Carys Richards is senior vice president of Human Resources for Middle East and Africa at Mastercard