Employee-driven innovation and workplace learning: Exploring present realities, future possibilities and enduring challenges

Photo: Wikimedia Innovation as EU-mantra Innovation is the new mantra of EU policies and organizational mission statement. Just as “skills-deficit” discourses dominated policies for more than a decade and demanded lifelong learning solutions, the narratives of innovation are now being increasingly linked to a new set of challenges for reformulated versions of lifelong learning to


Photo: Wikimedia

Innovation as EU-mantra

Innovation is the new mantra of EU policies and organizational mission statement. Just as “skills-deficit” discourses dominated policies for more than a decade and demanded lifelong learning solutions, the narratives of innovation are now being increasingly linked to a new set of challenges for reformulated versions of lifelong learning to meet.

This is problematic in a number of ways. Both innovation and employees’ workplace learning are EU policy priorities, but little is known about how employees contribute to innovation. More fundamentally, we know that innovation cannot be taken as a universal “good”.  Indeed a state of permanent re-invention can be understood as part of the crisis of modern capitalism; part of the problem rather than the solution.

Other perspectives highlight the progressive potential for social relations at work as the means of production shift in the direction of collaboration, co-configuration and more open relationships, but warn that this is an uneven process whose outcomes are very uncertain and are certainly not guaranteed to produce the social transformations envisaged by the most optimistic writers on the topic.

The role of research

Research plays an important role in injecting an appreciation of the realities of workplaces and organizational dynamics into this arena. Although most innovation strategies recognise the essential role of employees in innovation, much of the current research effort is biased towards the importance of what Aasen, in this issue, terms “external knowledge sources” for innovation.

Employees’ potential roles as drivers of innovation have been overlooked as  R&D-driven and user-driven innovation have been foregrounded in competitive strategies.

In this special issue on employee-driven innovation (EDI),  it is important first of all to acknowledge that fully-fledged EDI approaches are a rarity in most business and industry sectors.  Although there are some significant examples, EDI is generally not mainstreamed, as De Spiegelaere  et al. argue in this issue. Moreover, research into the involvement of “ordinary workers” in workplace innovation is under-developed.

Employee-driven innovation

In 2003 I was invited to join a European network known as the EDI-network, in a project  sponsored by The Danish Strategic Research Council and supported by the Danish Trade Union Confederation, LO, that hosted seminars and conferences in Copenhagen and Brussels.  The collaborations forged in this network have developed refreshingly creative yet critical insights into this emerging field, some of which were recently published in the Palgrave collection Employee-driven innovation: A New Approach edited by Høyrup et al. (2012). In this new approach, employee-driven innovation refers to the “generation and implementation of new ideas, articles and processes originating from interaction of employees not assigned to this task” (p.8).

This definition includes the everyday remaking of jobs and organizational practices, described by Kesting and Ulhoi (2010) as part of a process that  emerges co-incidentally among ordinary employees, often across the internal boundaries of organizations and across professions. The innovations are often generated by the need to “work-around” day- to-day problems at work, finding solutions as resources, systems or tools do not match up to requirements of the immediate task. Thus many practice-based innovations may be “beyond the reach of managers”. In this sense, EDI has a symbiotic relationship with modern versions of workplace learning that emphasise the everyday remaking of work practices in the socio-cultural contexts of work.

An understanding of the dynamics of organizations is crucial to the development of EDI, not just a backcloth but as constitutive of the ways in which activities are structured and how employees act. Furthermore workplace learning is an integral element, as innovation entails learning and learning opens up the possibilities of innovation. EDI rests on incentives for emloyees to learn new things, to do tasks in new ways and to vary and eventually change working practices, working with co-workers. Much of this innovation occurs incrementally, in small steps, as part of a complex process.

An informed analysis of EDI also has to maintain a questioning stance on the issue of whose interests are served by the resulting innovations. The debate thus far raises important issues of ownership and material rewards arising not only from the co-production of ideas, articles and processes, but also their exchange and dissemination (Fenwick, 2012)

The contributors to this issue come to an appreciation of the under-realised potential of EDI from very different backgrounds. I came to this field of inquiry through previous collaborative research work on incentives to learning in and through the workplace that focused on three scales of activity (Evans, Hodkinson, Rainbird and Unwin, 2006). At the macro level, wider social structures and social institutions can be fundamental in shaping how activities that involve learning and innovation take place. This includes the legal frameworks that govern employees’ entitlements, industrial relations and the role of trades unions as well as the social structuring of business systems. In the latter Whitley (2000) has shown how work systems in different countries contrast in the ways they structure and control how work is allocated and performed and rewarded :

… these systems are linked to the nature of firms, interest groups, and dominant governance principles or “rules of the game” in different societies, which in turn stem from different patterns of industrialization.(88)

At the intermediate scale of activity, the nature of the environment in the organization can be learning-rich or learning-poor in the opportunities, incentives and experiences it affords (Fuller and Unwin, 2004). The processes of creating environments that encourage workplace learning and innovative practice are often interlinked.

For most employers, workers’ learning is not a priority; decisions about workers’ learning are characterized as lower-order decisions. First-order decisions usually concern markets and competitive strategy. These in turn affect second-order strategies concerning work organization and job design. In this context, workplace learning is likely to be a third-order strategy (see also Keep and Mayhew, 1999).

At the micro-scale of activity, the individual workers’ past experiences, dispositions towards work and learning and their present situations are profoundly connected with the ways in they take advantage of the opportunities afforded by their immediate work environment.

These macro-, meso- and micro- scales of activity all have to be kept in view in order to understand processes of workplace learning and the contribution of ordinary workers to innovation processes. The strength of an approach that is akin to “zooming in and out” on internet landscape views is demonstrable, but one problem with this conceptualization into scales of activity is that the scales can come to be regarded a fixed levels of the social world.

In a further development of these ideas, I have found the social ecology metaphor provides a useful avenue for elaborating the complexity and inter-dependence of factors that impact on innovation, learning and worker participation (Evans, Waite and Kersh, 2011 ). Applications of ecological conceptualisations are found in studies ranging from macro-level analyses of organizations to ecologies of the inner workings of social groups such as families or work teams (e.g.Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Biesta and Tedder, 2007).  Recent applications of social ecological approaches to organizational processes view the latter as interdependent and political. They incorporate ‘the messy workings of widely varying power relations, along with the forces of history, culture, economics and social change’ (Weaver-Hightower, 2008).

In considering different scales of activity in organizations, it is important to avoid assumptions about the straightforward dissemination of corporate plans and organizational policies but instead explore, as Weaver-Hightower has suggested,  the contestation, selective appropriation and interpretation of initiatives at the policy, organizational and individual level.

In developing a social ecological approach, de Certeau’s strategies and tactics have also provided an important lens which has potential for developing deeper insights into employee participation in workplace learning and innovation (Waite and  Evans, 2012 ). De Certeau’s (1984) conceptual distinction between ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’ provides a powerful lens through which to explore the intended and unintended consequences of policies at the organizational and individual level In his analysis of the uses to which social representation and modes of social behaviour are put by individuals and groups, de Certeau links ‘strategies’ with institutions and structures of power, while ‘tactics’ are utilized by individuals to create space for themselves in environments defined by strategies.

Outline of this special issue

Three contributions in this special issue explore the phenomenon of EDI by analysing organizational dynamics. Starting at the strategic or managerial level, Tone Merethe Aasen, Oscar Amundsen, Leif Jarle Gressgård, Kåre Hansen focus on a potential outcome of EDI policies and processes: the improvement of collaboration through workplace learning. Their study connects successful collaborative innovation strategies with particular internal organizational and managerial skills. Their article analyses ways in which organizations can utilise “internal as well as external knowledge sources” (including workers’ know-how and tacit knowledge) in ways that expand capacity for innovation. The authors argue that EDI-practices can trigger learning processes which, in turn, result in a more general interest for improvement among employees. To succeed, leaders have to change the way they interact with employees, moving towards coaching relationships in place of traditional managerial control.

At the same time, their feelings of security increased are found to increase when they are leading in an EDI-environment, as employees increasingly assume responsibility for change and innovation. More generally, organizations that successfully introduce and sustain EDI are found to share characteristics such as “orientation towards improvement and change”, “openness to new ideas”, and “relationships of trust and autonomy”.

The authors are careful to remind us, though, that turning EDI-practices into profitable innovation depends crucially on the workplace culture, on a “constructive interplay” in the ways that managements’ and employees’ roles are performed, and on the adoption of suitable tools, not only for ideas capture but also for information dissemination and knowledge exchange. Diversity in bringing together teams and in generating ideas, highly developed problem-solving capacities, and a general tolerance for failure are among the more distinctive features of successful EDI strategies. These findings are consistent with Ellstrom et al’s view that  ‘various types of support and resources for learning’ are needed to be able to move from established ideas towards new ones in work contexts (2010, 35).

The contribution by Stan De Spiegelaere; Guy Van Gyes, and Geert Van Hootegem presents a complementary view, based on findings from a large scale Belgian employee survey on employee innovation and workplace learning in five industry sectors.  The research yields evidence that workplace learning provides potentially strong levers for employee innovation, particularly for lower level employees.

Yet the survey also reveals the limited extent of EDI, showing that, in practice, innovation is most often an “elite driven” process with only a limited involvement of lower level employees: “genuine employee-driven innovations are a rarity”. The sectors included in this research differed, however: the chemical industry was found to be the sector in which employees at different levels of the workforce were found to be more equally involved in innovative activities. It is also argued by the authors that the elite character of innovation can be effectively countered using both “in-work workplace learning” and job training, concluding that providing greater in-work learning opportunities to technical workers could promote innovation mainstreaming, with more equal participation of employees at different levels of the hierarchy.

Employee-driven Innovation can be created in dialogue and negotiations between management and employees. It can be based on ideas posed and developed by managers or employees, or in collaboration between the two groups. They equate to “Second order EDI” in Høyrup’s terminology (2012,10). These notions  can be explored further, from my perspective, by bringing into play de Certeau’s (1984) conceptual distinction between ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’ in exploration of the intended and unintended consequences of policies. In his analysis of the uses to which social representation and modes of social behaviour are put by individuals and groups, de Certeau links “strategies” with institutions and structures of power, while “tactics” are utilized by individuals to create space for themselves in environments defined by strategies. Strategies are only available to subjects of ‘will and power,’ because of their access to a spatial or institutional location that allows them to objectify the rest of the social environment:

A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed and thus serve as a basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, ‘clienteles,’ ‘targets,’ or ‘objects of research’ (De Certeau 1984: 35).

Although individuals lack a space of their own from which to apply strategies, they remain active agents through ongoing tactical practices which continuously re-signify and disrupt the schematic ordering of reality produced through the strategic practices of the powerful.

Through his analysis of a variety of everyday practices, using examples such as reading and cooking, de Certeau illustrates his claim that everyday life works by a process of “poaching on the territory of others”, recombining the rules and articles that already exist in culture in a process of “bricolage” that is influenced, but never wholly determined, by those rules and articles. ‘The Greeks called these “ways of operating” metis. But they go much further back, to the immemorial intelligence displayed in the tricks and imitations of plants and fishes. From the depths of the ocean to the streets of modern megalopolises, there is a continuity and permanence in these tactics’ (De Certeau 1984, X1X).  In de Certeau’s terms, it can be shown how, in the workplaces of real life, workers have tactically employed knowledge and opportunities afforded by workplaces by ‘making something of them’ with  respect to ends and references that extend far beyond the reach of the workplace itself (see Waite, Evans and Kersh, 2012) .

Wegener’s contribution focuses on the ends and references of front line public sector workers that are significant in shaping the EDI processes, exploring the value dimensions of public innovation. Based on an ethnographic field study in elder care and related social and health care education, this contribution affords insights into employee and manager values. What employees and managers, respectively, percieve to be “new and valuable” is found to depend on community values and expectations (Engeström, 1999) as well as individuals’ desires, needs and requirements (Billett, 2009). Wegener argues that when we talk of employees “actively co-creating” at work,  the value dimension of public innovation must be understood not only in terms of value creation (economic or non-economic) but also as value encounters within the innovation discourses and change processes.

Arguing from a relational interdependence perspective, this contribution also gets inside social ecological processes by showing how innovation processes entail much more than dissemination or implementation of something new. When teachers, care workers and managers at the front line encounter “the innovation imperative” they interpret, modify and integrate the innovation concept, according to their own values and how they envision their professional practice. In so doing they evaluate  the values dimension within the innovation concept, often adopting different positions as to what constitutes desirable and undesirable change, and what they should be striving to change or preserve. On the basis of the findings of this inquiry, the author alerts readers to the likelihood that important aspects of value are being ignored in the quest for innovation, inviting us to consider whether “the idea of public innovation has been taken too far?”

The contributions discussed so far have elucidated the processes of EDI, with reference to organizational strategies, the interplay between employees and managers and the participants’ values. Palle Rasmussen’s article “Creative and innovative competence as a task for adult education” takes us into the territory of the content of the learning that generates innovation. Creativity, innovative skills and entrepreneurship are all held to foster innovation and are included among the areas that teaching for innovation is meant to foster. Rasmussen’s point of departure is that  the field is conceptually under-developed. He retraces some steps in its evolution in the context of social science innovation theory and studies of the learning economy. From this standpoint a concept of creative and innovative competence at the individual level is developed, focusing on the capacity of individuals to engage in and effect visible innovation in a domain of knowledge and practise.

The author usefully distinguishes between the STI (Science–Technology-Innovation) and DUI (Doing-Using-Interacting) modes, showing how innovation is often mobilised by practitioners with strong knowledge of the specific trade and its markets or users. He also identifies the relative neglect of the DUI form, attributing the privileging of the STI form to the higher status of scientific knowledge. Workplace learning is integral to the DUI mode. Mainstreaming of DUI, in De Spiegelaere’s terms, depends on employees at different hierarchical levels of the workforce developing innovative and creative competence. This contribution shows how a work-related adult education programme in cooperation and communication in a metal works factory can successfully engage employees in lower level jobs.

Most importantly, these employees, who are often subject to strict divisions and restricted insights into the wider work scenario, were able to gain different perspectives on their own department’s practice or a greater overview of the workplace as a whole. This connects with Aasen et al’s observations on the key role of information exchange and knowledge dissemination in fostering employee participation in innovation and underlines the importance of approaches that increase the wider knowledge as well as the creative competence, of workers at all levels.

The article of Loek Nieuwenhuis et al. is based on the premise that in the educational field it is of great importance to enhance the quality of educational innovations and to ensure knowledge creation and dissemination. Based on theoretical and empirical studies it is stated that knowledge creation in innovation processes can be enhanced to stimulate collective teacher learning through experimentation. It is concluded that systematically improving the quality of education during every day’s business really is difficult for teams. Thus the learning potential of the workplace of teachers is depending on a complexity of influencing factors on the organizational level, the team level and the individual level. It seems evident that teacher driven innovation is a powerful instrument for enhancing educational quality but in practice the preconditions in modern VET-colleges (Vocational Education and Training) are not fully developed yet.

The article by Karppinen et al. equally deals with innovation in the educational sector. The article explores how the concept of design is applied to teacher education in the Finnish context. The concept is understood as integrative thinking and collaborative knowledge acquisition. The theoretical framework outlined by the authors still requires implementation in practice: in a school context this could mean a teaching method where pupils could become better acquainted with each other and thus diminish bullying and social exclusion.

In the final contribution, Steen Høyrup discusses the role of learning laboratories and the characteristics of an optimal learning arena. To contribute to the employee driven innovation, it can be argued that employees need to identify with and be well integrated into their working environment and, at the same time, be able to step outside it to gain a distinct and critical perspective on its norms and processes. In pursuing this theme, Høyrup examines how learning labs are being constructed and used as learning arenas to support empowerment of employees and innovative learning. He identifies the shortcomings of learning labs in creating all of the learning conditions necessary to foster transformational learning. He argues that the total transformational learning process looks paradoxical and includes opposite movements: to create a distance from one’s daily practice in order to re-unite oneself with this environment.

The learning lab provides a temporary social system. While it does provide conditions that facilitate many learning processes, such as spaces for reflection and psychological safety, the author argues that the transformational learning process has to be unfolded and supported in daily and authentic environments. Utilizing the approach of the ‘parallel organization’ and the network of learning organizations can expand the authenticity of the learning environment. A wider conclusion is that, for transformational and innovative learning, different kinds of learning systems have to supplement each other and a high degree of contextualization is required. The search for single ideal learning arena is probably misplaced.


Throughout these articles, innovation and workplace learning are shown to be inextricably intertwined in the social ecological interdependencies  of organizations. Employee -driven innovation is unlikely to occur unless the process engages hearts and minds, is supported by quality workplace learning and has recognisable returns for the employees themselves.

Those organizations that are likely to succeed in supporting employee participation in innovation will manage to establish a broad strategic  terrain for workplace learning within the organization, in a manner that approximates the “whole organization” approaches advocated by many development agencies. These organizations will tend to uphold the generic benefits of learning (as part of the ‘psychological contract betwen employer and employees) whilst responding to specific needs for the development of particular competences, thereby generating the potential for the positive interplay between formal and informal learning which, in turn, can widen the channels for employee-driven innovation.

The articles remind us also that innovation is not just a question of the employees becoming open-minded and creativecreative, it involves interdependencies that play out at the organizational level and beyond. While successful approaches can be identified, it has to be acknowledged that, in practice, most organizational policies and strategies, as Ball (1998)  observes, are “ramshackle, compromise, hit and miss affairs, that are reworked, tinkered with, nuanced and inflected through complex processes of influence, text production, dissemination and, ultimately, re-creation in contexts of practice”. This scenario is recognisable in many organizational domains, in both private and public sectors.

Michel de Certeau’s work on quotidian social practices – and in particular his conceptual distinction between ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’ – provides a useful theoretical lens for understanding the processes of adaption and accommodation entailed workplace learning and employee participation in  innovation. Rather than explicitly subverting or rejecting dimensions innovation and related workplace learning strategies, employees often “make of” the opportunities afforded by the workplace provision by using them with regard to ends and references that may improve their day to day working lives or may extend beyond the workplace and relate to their personal values, future plans or life-styles.

Access to workplace learning can, in some instances, also compensate for previously negative educational experiences. In their bid to boost staff engagement in workplace innovations, foster a positive company ethos and enhance corporate solidarity, organizations can develop broad “strategic” terrains in which individuals are able to pursue “tactical” engagements with learning and the re-making of practice more extensively. Drawing on the concept of “poiesis”, de Certeau highlights the acts of production that take place in everyday social life but which are not always formally recognized, remaining “invisible” or “secondary”.

In challenging the associations of action and passivity that implicit in the producer/consumer binary, de Certeau’s lens also facilitates the growing critique of unhelpful binaries in workplace learning discourse. For example, the distinctions drawn between knowledge worker/routine worker all too frequently depict the latter as the passive recipients of those who generate and disseminate new forms of knowledge or instil new working practices. As argued elsewhere (Waite and Evans, 2012) “routine” workers who appear not to engage in the formation of new types of knowledge and skills may be less visibly engaged in innovative work practices in so far as they deploy various ‘tactical’ practices that are designed to make their working lives more meaningful  or to work around day-to-day difficulties.

The literature highlights  some organizations that are forging approaches to employee participation that are based on a large degree of institutional flexibility (on the part of organizations and providers) which has in turn facilitated the adaptive potential of workplace learning for innovation. These cases are rather exceptional, and authors in this issue generally concur that the topic is under-researched and the phenomenon of genuinely employee-driven innovation is rarely found. All writers, from different standpoints, have illustrated the potential of the concept and have shown how the resources brought by employees can be significant for innovation processes and practices. Whether the focus is on management exploitation of a new set of resources for economic returns or more satisfying work for participants, the bottom – linked approaches set out by Kristensen could arguably provide ways forward.

I argue that we can go even further. In taking a critical stance on the relations between organizational strategies and individual tactics, we can bring the missing dimensions of adults’ life worlds, potential clashes of values and the questions of the material returns owing to the co-producers of the innovations more fully into the analysis, while also acknowledging more deeply the realities of the ‘messy workings’ of organisations and the power relations at work.

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