Employee-driven innovation in practice – Promoting learning and collaborative innovation by tapping into diverse knowledge sources

Employee-driven innovation is an underexplored opportunity for sustainable development in many organizations. EDI-practices triggers learning processes which result in a general interest for improvement among employees, increased engagement in innovation processes and reduced opposition to change. The present study is based on a claim that the successful implementation of complex innovation strategies, i.e. strategies based


Employee-driven innovation is an underexplored opportunity for sustainable development in many organizations. EDI-practices triggers learning processes which result in a general interest for improvement among employees, increased engagement in innovation processes and reduced opposition to change.

The present study is based on a claim that the successful implementation of complex innovation strategies, i.e. strategies based on the exploitation and integration of diverse knowledge sources, depends on certain organizational skills and qualities. Although this indicates the essential role of employees in innovation, current research focus is biased towards the importance of external knowledge sources. Based on qualitative interviews with employees and leaders from 20 Norwegian organizations, we propose that employee-driven innovation (EDI) is an underexplored opportunity for sustainable development in many organizations.

We find that the systematic introduction of EDI-practices increases organizations’ ability not only to exploit internal, but also external knowledge sources, and that this favourably impacts the capacity for innovation. Specifically, organizational introduction of diverse EDI-practices triggers learning processes which, in turn, result in a more general interest for improvement among employees, increased engagement in innovation processes in and across skill areas, and reduced opposition to change. Furthermore, organizations that succeed with EDI show certain similar characteristics, related to their role performances, their traditions of acting and thinking in particular ways, and in the structural mechanisms that they adopt to involve employees in innovation processes.


Today, business life is such that the distinction between “internal” and “external” contributions to workplace learning and innovation become blurred. Accordingly, knowledge development and innovation are increasingly understood as the results of the sharing of information and experience within, as well as across, organizational boundaries (Powell, 1998; Hargadon, 2003; Caloghirou et al., 2004). In the present paper, we introduce the concept of “collaborative innovation” to address this situation of cross-organizational cooperation, exploration, learning, and innovation. Seen from a learning perspective, this concept is in tune with the idea that learning as the emerging outcome of everyday work experience (Ellström 2010), resulting in an expansion of human capacities (Evans & al. 2006).

A similar way of thinking can also be seen in several of the more recent theories and models of innovation, such as user-driven innovation (von Hippel, 1988; 2005), continuous innovation (Boer & Gertsen, 2003), employee-driven innovation (Høyrup, 2010), and open innovation (Chesbrough, 2003; Lindegaard, 2010). Implicitly, learning and innovation should be seen as interlinked processes, sourced by people who are working together, independent of their employment and field of work.

Chesbrough (2003) coined the term “open innovation” a decade ago, to denote complex innovation strategies involving organizations’ searches across professional and organizational boundaries for opportunities to advance their businesses. Although this is an indication of the essential role of an organization’s own employees in innovation, the prevailing dichotomy of “open” versus “closed” innovation seems to have partly camouflaged the continued importance of employees’ performance, including their capacity for multidisciplinary collaboration and contribution to workplace learning and change (Menon & Pfeffer, 2003).

As a result, the innovation researchers’ predominant focus has moved towards the significance of external sources for new knowledge and innovation, and the need to adapt business models accordingly. Up to now, few studies have explored the opportunities inherent in the general involvement of employees in innovation, referred to as employee-driven innovation (EDI) (Byrne et al., 2009). Recent research indicates, however, that there is a major innovation potential in employees’ contribution to new knowledge, new articles, and new work processes (Høyrup, 2012).

As in the open innovation perspective, the area of interest in EDI is the presumed potential of involving diverse knowledge sources in innovation, including the practises needed to capitalize on this potential. Inherent in this perspective is the fundamental assumption that employees have skills and experiences that will strengthen an organization’s overall capacity to innovate, given favourable conditions. Employee-driven innovation can thus be seen as a strategy implying an influential role of employees in innovation. However, this does not mean that the importance of leadership is de-emphasized. The contribution of EDI is the broad, systematic exploitation of employee knowledge in innovation work.

Research questions

The present study was guided by the questions: What are the characteristics of successful practices for EDI? What are the possible connections between such practices and the capability of organizations to explore and exploit diverse knowledge sources?

The study was based on a claim that the successful implementation of collaborative innovation strategies, such as open innovation, requires certain organizational skills and qualities (Kelley, 2010; Lindegaard, 2010). This claim is substantiated for example by the work of Van de Vrande et al. (2009). They find that Dutch SMEs increasingly adopt principles of open innovation and that dealing with the expanding network of external contacts, which are generated as a consequence, involves important challenges related to organizational and cultural issues. Accordingly, the significance of employees’ contributions to innovation and the premises for such contribution are addressed.

The remainder of this article is organized as follows: The next section reviews relevant literature, followed by an outline of the research design. The fourth section presents and discusses the empirical findings. The paper concludes with some final remarks on possible consequences of the study.

Current understanding

Innovation and workplace learning

Building on Evans et al. (2006) Høyrup (2010, 143) suggests that learning is “rooted in action in the organization and culture of the workplace”. In this context, learning is conceptualized as processes by which human capacities are expanded through action, experience and social interaction. This perspective is in line with the theories of learning developed by Lave and Wenger, in particular their contribution to “situated learning” (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Of interest in this context is also recent development within the two strands of research referred to as “workplace learning” and “organizational learning” as it is discussed by Elkjær and Wahlgren (2006). According to these authors there is an increasing focus within both strands on the importance of employees’ opportunity to participate in organizational practice as basis for learning and development, for the individual, as well as for the organization.  This agrees well with a view that innovation is a social process, in which participants reiterate and transform ideas as part of the same process (Aasen, 2009; Ellström, 2010). Worth noticing is that one of the implications of this way of thinking is that innovation processes will and should not be limited by formal or informal organizational boundaries, and therefore, in practice, are never “closed”.

A perception of human interaction as the source of both continuity and novelty is reflected in the concepts of adaptive and innovative learning (Høyrup, 2010). According to Høyrup, adaptive (or reproductive) learning involves the acquisition of existing knowledge and skills. As distinct from this, the results of innovative learning are conversational themes, ideas and solutions which were not previously known. Both forms of learning are needed for an organization to handle the challenge of combining ongoing operations and innovation. Simply put, adaptive learning will increase employees’ mastery of routine tasks, thus increasing the possibility of moving their attention towards improvement and change (Høyrup, 2012). Engagement in problem-solving activities forms a basis for innovative learning and innovation. To complete this “learning-innovating-cycle”, successful adoption of innovation involves the need for adaptive learning.

Employee-driven innovation

The point of departure for the research on EDI is that all employees have a potential for creative thinking, and will be able to contribute to innovation and change. A core point is that to be able to learn and contribute to innovation, employees must take part in social situations where knowledge and ideas are exchanged, and changed (Evans, 2006). This makes the interpretation of innovation competency suggested by Darsø (2012, 123), as “the ability to create innovation by navigating in complex processes together with others” significant.

To understand the value-creating potential of EDI-practices Ellström (2010) suggests that two questions are of particular relevance; how can the workplace be understood as a site for learning and innovation, and what could be possible links between learning and innovation. The present study seeks to approach the first of these questions.

Although EDI is still a fresh concept, diverse definitions are emerging. An example is Smith et al. (2008, 1) who claim that EDI is:

… the generation and implementation of novel ideas, articles and processes originated by a single employee or by joint efforts of two or more employees.

A shortcoming of the above definition is that it does not reflect the idea of EDI as the broad involvement of employees in innovation. With reference to EPOC (1997, 15), Høyrup (2010, 148) emphasizes this very important aspect of EDI:

It is about the scope for improving employment and competitiveness through a better organization of work at the workplace, based on high skill, high trust and high quality. It is about the will and ability of management and workers to take initiatives, to improve the quality of goods and services, to make innovations and to develop the production process and consumer relations.

Current research on EDI can be divided into two main strands. The first strand discusses implications of EDI, which is emphasized as an important basis for sustained competitive advantage (Heller & al., 1998; Kelley, 2010). The predominant focus is on qualitative parameters. Studies within this strand of research indicate that the cultivation of internal qualities, such as autonomy and collaboration, strengthens individual motivation and satisfaction (Axtell & al., 2000; Smith & al., 2008) and improves upon organizational measures such as employee turnover, quality of work, and sick leave (Black & Lynch, 2004; Kelley, 2010).

Somewhat surprisingly, documentation of actual effects of EDI on innovation capacity and value creation is limited (exceptions can be found, e.g. Belangér, 2000; Zwick, 2004; Tidd & Bessant, 2009). This may be due to the complexity of such studies involving longitudinal analyses of large numbers of factors, which are often interrelated and which affect the outcome of innovation processes in different ways (Heller & al., 1998).

The second and most comprehensive strand of EDI-research is focused on conditions for EDI, related to organizational arrangements and context (Tierny & al., 1999; De Jong & Kemp, 2003; Smith & al. 2008; Byrne & al. 2009). Studies on different levels, whether individual (Scott & Bruce, 1994), group (Paulus & Young, 2000), or organizational (Byrne & al., 2009), all point out factors and conditions that are important for the initiation and development of EDI. Among the main factors identified is the importance of managements’ recognition of the need to give priority to innovation and to adapt to these processes through the generation, registration, evaluation and realization of ideas. Other key factors are the collaborative climate between management and employees (Tierny & al., 1999; Wilkinson & Dundon, 2010), as well as interactions among colleagues and between employees and externals (Cummings & Oldham, 1997; Smith & al., 2008).

Furthermore, results indicate that work life traditions and market conditions may influence both whether or not and how employees are involved in innovation (Black & Lynch, 1996; 2001; 2004; Zwick, 2004).

It should be noted that although the concept of employee-driven innovation is rather new, the core idea is not. In fact, the significance of employee-involvement in innovation was substantiated nearly 150 years ago when the problem-solving abilities of employees were emphasized as important for increasing the quality and lowering the costs of articles (Tidd & Bessant, 2009). A century later several researchers repeated the same idea. Their view was that the purposeful use of employees’ knowledge, referred to as core competencies, can and will result in increased innovation capacity (e.g. Stalk & al., 1992; Hamel & Prahalad, 1994).

One of the concepts introduced at the time, High Involvement Innovation (Bessant & Caffyn, 1997), is similar to EDI in many ways. Both concepts involve the idea that the general engagement of employees in innovation will lead to a higher degree of diversification and flexibility than can be seen in organizations where innovation processes are carried out by a limited group of people (Bessant, 2003; Hallgren, 2008).

Recent research has shown that the successful implementation of EDI-practices depends on two factors in particular. The first factor is a shared awareness of EDI as a rich source to innovation among employees and leaders. The second factor is the introduction of systematic approaches to EDI (Hallgren, 2008; Smith & al., 2008; Tidd & Bessant, 2009; Høyrup, 2010). These ideas also coincide with Ellström’s (2010) concept of “practice-based innovation”. Practice-based innovation is conceptualized in terms of learning in and through everyday work. The “learners” may be both managers and employees, and the “learning” is seen as an important source of workplace operations renewal. Thus, the concept of practice-based innovation contributes to EDI by identifying a possible link between employees’ learning and innovative outcomes.

Open innovation

The principal argument of open innovation is that borders between organizations and their environment increasingly open up, allowing purposive two-way flows of knowledge and ideas (Chesbrough, 2003). In a completely open setting, organisations combine knowledge exploitation and exploration to maximize the value of in-house expertise and capabilities. Relating this perspective with the above assumption that innovative results are linked with everyday workplace practices and learning points to a possible interdependency between the strategies of open innovation and of EDI. Implicitly, the open innovation ideas suggest that there is a potential for improving network conditions for knowledge development and innovation by upgrading general cooperative skills and opportunity recognition of employees. This further indicates a benefit of strengthening the web of “untradeable interdependencies” in networks (Storper, 1997), seen as a requisite for the development of contextualized knowledge and practices (Gertler 2003).

In line with the above arguments, some authors point out that the successful introduction of collaborative innovation strategies seems to be contingent on certain organizational qualities. As an example, Vanhaverbeke et al. (2008) focus on the need to improve organizations’ absorptive capacities as an important aspect of innovation capability in organizations. Foss et al. (2011) find that organizational adaptation, such as the delegation of responsibility and the introduction of incentives for knowledge sharing and learning, are prerequisite for obtaining positive effects from open innovation. The broad, purposive involvement of employees in innovation work is thus seen as a premise for the success of collaborative innovation strategies.

More specifically, Hewett (2005) claims that innovation is unlikely to occur if employees are not strongly involved in the problems to be solved and do not believe in the importance of the development work. Accordingly, all employees should develop knowledge about the processes of turning ideas into profitable business (Kelley, 2010; Lindegaard, 2010), as well as capacity to manage relations to various external contributors.

Research design

The results in this paper are based on qualitative interviews with 48 employees and leaders from 20 Norwegian organizations. A main objective of the research was to identify a best practice for EDI in Norway, thus cases were chosen on the basis of expectations about their relevant information content (Flyvbjerg, 2006). “Relevance” was evaluated on the basis of the organizations’ reputation for their profitable involvement of employees in innovation work, as measured by employees’ experiences of a positive work environment, and leaders’ affirmations of improved innovation capacity. In addition to the research team, a reference group consisting of representatives from The Norwegian Ministry of Trade and Industry, The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, and The Confederation of Norwegian Organization actively participated in this process. The selection process can be referred to as a strategic or purposeful selection (Morrow, 2005).

The twenty case organizations represented eight different industries; among them contracting firms, manufacturing and processing industries, and software and service providers, see table 1. The choice of rather heterogeneous cases was made to increase the possible generalizability of results across cases (Schofield 2002). The table below provides an overview of the cases, including numbers and types of informants:

An interview guide was developed on the basis of a theoretical framework which included innovation process phases in general (idea–selection–development–implementation–utilization), and factors previously identified as important for EDI (Tierny et al., 1999, De Jong & Kemp, 2003, Smith et al., 2008). With the exception of two of the interviews, semi-structured group interviews were carried out with two or three respondents. The decision to use group interviews was based on two considerations. First, the topic was not sensitive in a way that called for individual interviews. The second consideration was related to the assumed advantage of this approach, involving a “naturalistic” setting where the informants could build on each other’s experiences during the interview.

The duration of each interview was between 1 and 1, 5 hours. Two researchers who were jointly responsible for the preliminary content analysis conducted each interview. The informants were leaders, employees, and union representatives (see table 1), and in most cases all three types of informants were interviewed together. The interviews were recorded and subsequently transcribed. Data were coded based on a pre-defined scheme and analysed with reference to innovation phases and the thematic categories selected in the theoretical framework. The final analyses were made by the multidisciplinary four-person research team.

Morrow (2005) emphasizes that the validity of qualitative inquiry is related to the information richness of the cases selected, as well as to the analytical capabilities of the researcher(s). In the present study the analytical phase was strengthened by use of a work process where the research team alternated between individual analysis and joint discussions, based on the combination of empirical data and a broad theoretical understanding. This approach to research has been referred to as “mutual construction of meaning between co-researchers” (Rismark & Sølvberg, 2007, 602); a process where the researchers question, develop and qualify the categories and analysis thorough dialogue.

Results and discussion

The present research was designed to learn about successful EDI practices across industries, and a purposive selection of organizations was made accordingly. The research focus was primarily on what these organizations actually do to profit from EDI, that is, on important conditions for value-creating EDI-practices. We found, however, that the issue of employee involvement in innovation could not be discussed without taking into consideration the context of daily operations. The case organizations all struggled to balance an apparently unsolvable tension between the need to uphold efficient operations and at the same time to innovate their articles and processes. This suggests that the distinction between ongoing operations and innovation is about to become blurred, making innovation everybody’s concern. This makes topical Høyrup’s concepts of adaptive and innovative learning, which may enable a dynamic and less dichotomized investigation of organizational life (Høyrup, 2010). Ellström’s discussion about the need to balance the “logic of production” with the “logic of development” is also of relevance, emphasizing in particular that

… the interplay between and the relative strength of the two logics in the daily flow of practice are assumed to determine the available scope for both adaptive and developmental learning (Ellström 2010, 36).

Another important finding of the present study was that a “best practice” for EDI could not be outlined. On the contrary, the results suggest that EDI can be implemented and performed in various ways, which may all meet expectations about improved innovation capacity. It is worth noticing that although this study was designed to capture the best ways to involve an organization’s own employees in innovation, the processes reported to us were not “closed”. On the contrary, all of the case organizations had extensive cooperation with external partners, including distributors, customers, researchers, consultants, contract workers, and even students and pupils. Moreover, many of the organizations included external experts as part of their idea evaluation and development teams.

According to Tidd and Bessant (2009, 115) “the more people are involved in change, the more receptive they become to change itself”. This agrees well with our results, which show that workplaces focusing on the general involvement of employees in innovation improved their overall ability to interact with various knowledge sources, and that employees became more open to change. As emphasized by one of the employee respondents:

Things change all the time, even if we don’t notice it. And we shouldn’t be afraid of change. That’s the core of it, because if you are afraid of change you will also be reluctant to suggest improvements. Maybe some of those improvements will affect the job that you do, and that is the mindset that we need. That change is important for this company, and that it does not mean that you may lose your job.

It appeared that the implementation of EDI-practices did not only affect employees’ skills as contributors in internal innovation initiatives; it also made an impact on organizational ability to benefit from external collaboration. We therefore propose that EDI-practices are closely interwoven not only with individual and organizational learning, but also with capacities associated with multidisciplinary collaboration. This proposal is in accordance with Lindegaard (2011), who suggests that in practice collaborative innovation is about bridging internal and external resources. Similarly, Dahlander and Gann (2008) point out that internal and external strategies for innovation must be seen as integrated phenomena.

In consequence, employee-driven innovation should not be understood as employees’ taking over innovation initiatives, nor is it limited to managements’ encouragement of new ideas. Rather, the present study suggests that EDI includes various arrangements to support internal innovation initiatives from the entire organization, as well as employees’ participation in arenas where input from people external to the organization can be captured, developed, and communicated.

Organizational qualities supporting EDI

Although an unambiguous “best practice” for EDI could not be found, certain apparently significant qualities for the development and continuation of EDI-practices could be identified in all the case organizations. These qualities could be categorized into three interrelated domains: 1) Performance of specific organizational roles; leaders, employees and (where present) union representatives. 2) Recognition of particular cultural characteristics guiding employees into certain patterns of thought and action; such as development orientation, engagement, and openness. 3) Use of specific structural mechanisms, or tools, to encourage and facilitate EDI-practices.

The latter domain, which we will refer to as “tools”, is a possible backbone of innovation work given a productive interplay with the two other domains (Aasen & al., 2012). This claim is supported by the observation that most of the case organizations used various tools to capture and develop ideas in cooperation not only with their own employees, but also with customers and external specialists. In addition, various tools were adopted to support other parts of the innovation work. These were manual tools, such as lists and forms, newsletters, and information boards; e-tools, such as software, social media, intranet, and information screens; and tailored processes and activities, such as systems and routines for idea capture and development, education and facilitation, and quality improvement groups. In addition, formal and informal meetings constituted important arenas for the development and realization of good practices for EDI. Whether used independently or in combination, such tools were perceived to support the processes for employee participation in innovation:

… and by adopting these simple information channels, like information boards and screens, employees’ curiosity and willingness to contribute is stimulated. (Manager)

A parallel observation is made by Ellström (2010, 35), who points out the need for “various types of support and resources for learning” to be able to move from established ideas towards new ones. To ensure the necessary flow of information and the establishment of connections among opportunities, ideas, needs, and problems, the case organizations used various approaches. In small organizations, it appeared sufficient to ensure that well-developed internal and external networks were developed, while in larger organizations the purposeful fostering of “network-nodes” was needed. An example of this approach can also be found in Whelan et al. (2011), whose focus is the combining of external ideas with internal competence. They suggest that the roles of “idea scouts” and “idea connectors” are both needed to find and connect ideas, and that the performance of these roles influences organizations influences organizations’ capacities for producing valuable results. We find that in large organizations, these roles are just as important for supporting internal information flows across divisional and professional borders. A potential challenge is that as the number of co-operations or “network-nodes” increases, so does the overall complexity, meaning that additional means of coordination may be needed.

A particular finding was that the organizations that have implemented most practices for EDI, reported the best results. An important premise for the valuable outcome of such practices was, however, that they were integrated as part of the daily work life and were not based on being voluntary or put on top of already existing tasks. Furthermore, as indicated above, the organizations’ stories about improved innovative capacity as result of increased employee involvement in their innovation work shared several cultural characteristics. The characteristics were interrelated, implying that efforts to change the nature of one of them probably would affect one or more of the others.

Examples of such characteristics were “orientation towards improvement and change”, “openness to new ideas”, and “relationships of trust and autonomy”. In the majority of the case organizations, employees were expected to look beyond their own tasks and expertise, and consider their possible contribution to ongoing and emerging development initiatives. Team and idea diversity was generally seen as an advantage. Moreover, most of the case organizations were characterized by comprehensive information exchanges, great problem-solving capacities, and a general tolerance for failure. These factors were emphasized by all respondents as being particularly important for the willingness of their employees to experiment and learn, as well as for the overall innovation capacity. As an example, one of the respondents told us that:

There are a lot of examples illustrating that we (the employees) are encouraged to be creative. Like the former CEO, who said to us that in our company it is acceptable to make mistakes, but it is not acceptable to hide mistakes. Anyone who thinks he or she has a good idea should try to realize it. The managers’ job is to tell you if it is outside the scope of the company.

An additional distinguishing feature of organizations benefiting from EDI-practices was a continuous focus on idea capturing and prioritizing. Idea prioritizing generally involved decisions about work process improvement and minor technology adjustments, and more often than not, employees implemented such changes without consulting the management. On the other hand, if idea realization implied a need for a more comprehensive use of resources, management participation in the decision processes was essential. In light of the above, it is perhaps less surprising that the advantageous adoption of EDI-practices appeared to be closely linked to the extent of employees’ knowledge about the organization, including financial and strategic aspects. A particular management responsibility was thus related to the issues of information dissemination and knowledge exchange.

A cost benefit dilemma

As discussed in the previous section, the fundamentals of EDI can be defined by the three interrelated elements of roles, tools, and culture. Inevitably, cultural characteristics supportive of EDI cannot be “inserted” into the organization by resolution. It is the competent execution of leadership, supported by the adoption of suitable processes and tools, which might lead to the emergence of the desired workplace qualities and of long-term profit. We found that a particular challenge was related to the experience that the full potential of EDI-practices might not be measurable in a short-term. Quite a few of our respondents told about relatively long periods of transition characterized by employees’ frustration and anger, experiences of insecurity, and even by declining profits, before the changes towards increased involvement of employees in innovation were rewarded.

Accordingly, a fundamental condition for successful implementation of EDI-practices is that the top management shares a genuine conviction that this is an essential strategy for building innovation capacity. Among important means suggested for facilitating transition towards EDI were the managers’ delegation of authority and also the development of employees’ capacities to pick up the ball and run, which is “learning”. In addition, adaption for collaboration across departments, tasks, and organizations; appreciation of enthusiasm; and highlighting of accomplishment, small or large, were factors emphasized as decisive for success:

Employees should feel the managements’ trust in them. But it has to be a two-way expectation; we talk a lot about that. It is about responsibility; the willingness to take on responsibility on both sides to make the cooperation work. We need to trust each other when we work towards the same objectives. (Employee).

In spite of short-term profitability challenge, there was a general agreement between leaders and employees that, over time, EDI-practices resulted in widespread cooperative and creative skills. Specifically, employees’ interest for innovation opportunities and for their own role in such processes was strengthened. In addition, employees also showed increased attention towards the significance of such processes to create and maintain a productive and profitable workplace, and expressed both satisfaction and pride of their changed job responsibilities.

However, for “everybody”to be able to work across internal and external boarders, employees needed to understand how diversified thinking could be useful to the organization. One of the fundamental conditions to encourage this situation was a mutual willingness to share information, whether it was about financial or strategic developments, emerging opportunities, or problems in need of attention. It thus appeared that a basic condition for successful exploitation of collaborative innovation practices was that all employees held the necessary insight about their workplace to contribute as needed, which is the essence of EDI.

EDI implies change in management roles

As indicated, organizations that have successfully implemented EDI-practices pointed out that an important effect was increased openness to change among employees. This could be seen to further support collaborative innovation. We also found that truly working within an EDI-paradigm did not only impact the employees’ attitudes but also the leaders’. To succeed, leaders had to change the way they interacted with employees, towards being “coaches” or “conversation partners”. The difficult part, many of them admitted, was to let go of traditional control mechanisms. The general management experience was, however, that the feeling of security increased when they were leading in an EDI-environment, because the majority of the employees assumed responsibility for change and innovation. As an example, one of the managers emphasized that:

… there are no issues on the management agenda which are not open to everybody. It is all open, and the union representatives participate in the management meetings. And they do not have on the “representative hat”, nobody thinks that way. What we discuss is how we can improve; I think everybody share a genuine understanding that it is no use being good at for example HSE if we do not make money.

A particular management challenge was related to the task of evaluating the effects of EDI-practices. As established by Heller et al. (1998), the introduction of new participation guidelines is often assumed to lead to an actual change of practice, followed by improved productivity and competitive powers. If, however, measures indicate that productivity has not ameliorated, this may be due either to practices not having changed after all, or that practices have changed, without resulting in the expected benefits. This means that assessment of EDI-practices should include measurements of the effects on learning capacities, as well as on productivity and innovation. Among several challenges related to this kind of measuring is the fact that results may be also influenced by more factors, such as market fluctuation or competition, or to concurrent initiatives, such as education and training.

Finally, our empirical evidence indicates that the role of working management is particularly important in an EDI-context. The working manager (i.e. foreman, group leader, middle manager, etc.) is the person closest to the daily operations, and therefore the one who should have the responsibility for facilitating learning and improvement initiatives, including idea capturing and interaction with external knowledge sources. But we also found that the role of the working managers as part of EDI was not without challenges. As an example, to perform their required role within the EDI-paradigm, many of these managers had to substantially extend their own knowledge of the business outside their specialty area. In addition, they had to master the demanding combination of performing their jobs as skilled workers and capable leaders at the same time.

Final remarks

Although challenging, we claim that EDI is an underexplored opportunity in many organizations as a means for improving the overall capacity for innovation. Specifically, EDI results in a more general interest for improvement among employees, increased engagement in innovation processes, and reduced opposition to change. Prerequisites for such results are the joint efforts of leaders and employees to adapt their roles, to encourage the development of suitable cultural themes, and to introduce suitable tools supportive of EDI. In line with this, our general suggestion is that organizations seeking to pursue collaborative innovation strategies should start by evaluating their EDI practices. This implies that they engage in an assessment of their present situation with a focus on collaborative climates, learning environments, meeting arenas, and distribution of decision-making powers. The present study further indicates that individual and organizational learning are key factors to transform EDI-practices into innovation capacities. Yet, it should be acknowledged that moving workplace practices genuinely towards collaborative innovation might imply significant changes to the way people work and learn together, including management practices. This means that the full potential of EDI may not be realized overnight.



Aasen, T.M., Amundsen, O., Gressgård, L.J. and Hansen, K. (2012) In search of best practices for employee driven innovation: Experiences from Norwegian work life. In: K. Møller et al, (eds.) Employee-driven innovation. A new approach to innovation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Aasen, T.M.B. (2009) A complexity perspective on innovation processes for subsea technology development. Int. J. Learning and Change, Special Issue on ‘Complexity, Leadership and Change Processes’. Vol 3 (3): 294 – 307.

Axtell, C.M., Holman, D.J., Unsworth, K.L., Wall, T.D., Waterson, P.E. and Harrington, E. (2000) Shopfloor innovation: Facilitating the suggestion and implementation of ideas. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 73, pp. 265-285.

Belangér, J. (2000) The Influence of Involvement on Productivity: A Review of Research. R-00-4E, Human Resource Development, Canada.

Bessant, J. and Caffyn, S. (1997) High-involvement innovation through continuous improvement. Int. Journal of Technology Management, 14 (1), pp. 7-28.

Bessant, J. (2003) High involvement innovation. Chichester: John Wiley.

Black, S. and Lynch, L. (2001) How to compete: The impact of workplace practices and information technology on productivity. Review of Economics and Statistics, 83 (3), pp. 434-445.

Black, S. and Lynch, L. (1996) Human capital investments and productivity. American Economic Review, 86 (2), pp. 263-267.

Black, S. and Lynch, L. (2004) What’s driving the new economy?: The benefits of workplace innovation. The Economic Journal, 114 (493), pp. 97-116.

Boer, H. and Gertsen, F. (2003) From continuous improvement to continuous innovation: a (retro)(per)spective. International Journal of Technology Management, 26 (8): pp. 805-827.

Byrne, C.L., Mumford, M.D., Barrett, J.D. and Vessey, W.B. (2009) Examining the leaders of creative efforts: What do they do, and what do they think about? Creativity and Innovation Management, 18 (4), pp. 256-268.

Caloghirou, Y., Kastelli, I. and Tsakanikas, A. (2004) Internal capabilities and external knowledge sources: Complements or substitutes for innovative performance? Technovation, 24, pp. 29-39.

Chesbrough, H.W. (2003) Open innovation: the new imperative for creating and profiting from technology. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Cummings, A. and Oldham, G.R. (1997) Enhancing creativity: Managing work contexts for the high potential employee. California Management Review, 40 (1), pp. 22-38.

Dahlander, L. and Gann, D. (2008) How open is innovation? In: J. Bessant and T. Venables, (eds.) Creating wealth from knowledge. Meeting the innovation challenge. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp.61-79

Darsø, L. (2012) Innovation competency – an essential organizational asset. In: K. Møller et al, (eds.) Employee-driven innovation. A new approach to innovation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

De Jong, J.P.J. and Kemp, R. (2003) Determinants of co-workers’ innovative behaviour: An investigation into knowledge intensive services. International Journal of Innovation Management, 7 (2), pp. 189-212.

Elkjær, B. and Wahlgren, B. (2006) Organizational learning and workplace learning – similarities and differences. In: Antonacopoulou, E., Jarvis, P., Elkjær, B. and Høyrup, S. (eds) Learning, working & living. Mapping the terrain of working life learning. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 15-32

Ellström, P.E. (2010) Practice-based innovation: a learning perspective. Journal of workplace learning, 22 (1/2), pp. 27-40.

European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (1997) EPOC – Employee direct Participation in Organisational Change. New Forms of Work Organisation: European Research Report. ISBN 92-828-1888-8

Evans, K., Hodginson, P., Rainbird, H. and Unwin, I. (2006) Improving workplace learning. New York: Routledge.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2006) Five misunderstandings about case-Study research. Qualitative Inquiry, 12 (2), pp. 219-145

Foss, N.J., Laursen, K. and Pedersen, T. (2011) Linking customer interaction and innovation: The mediating role of new organizational practices. Organization Science, 22 (4), pp. 980–999.

Gertler, M.S. (2003) Tacit knowledge and the economic geography of context, or the undefinable tacitness of being (there). Journal of Economic Geography, 3 (1): pp. 75-99.

Hallgren, E.W. (2008) Employee Driven Innovation: A Case of Implementing High-Involvement Innovation. Unpublished thesis (PhD), Technical University of Denmark.

Hamel, G. and Prahalad, C.K. (1994) Competing for the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Hargadon, A. (2003) How breakthroughs happen. The surprising truth about how companies innovate. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Heller, F., Pusic, E., Strauss, G. and Wilpert, B. (1998) Organizational Participation: Myth and Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hewett, T.T. (2005) Informing the design of computer-based environments to support creativity. International Journal of Human- Computer Studies, 63 (4-5), pp. 383-409

Høyrup, S. (2010) Employee-driven innovation and workplace learning: basic concepts, approaches and themes. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research, 16, pp. 143-154

Høyrup, S. (2012) Employee-driven innovation: A new phenomenon, concept and mode of innovation. In: K. Møller et al, (eds.) Employee-driven innovation. A new approach to innovation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kelley, B. (2010) Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire. Chichester: Wiley

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Lindegaard, S. (2010) The Open Innovation Revolution: Essentials, Roadblocks, and Leadership Skills. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

Lindegaard, S. (2011) Making Open Innovation Work: @lindegaard to big and small companies: You need to open up your innovation efforts! Seattle, WA: CreateSpace

Menon, T. and Pfeffer, J. (2003) Valuing internal vs. external knowledge: explaining the preference for outsiders. Management science, 49 (4), pp. 497-413

Morrow, S.L. (2005) Quality and Trustworthiness in Qualitative Research in Counseling Psychology, Journal of Counselling Psychology, 52 (2), pp.250-260

Paulus, P. B. and Yang, H.-C. (2000) Idea Generation in Groups: A Basis for Creativity in Organizations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 82 (1), pp. 76-87.

Powell, W.W. (1998) Learning from collaboration: Knowledge and networks in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical. California Management Review 40 (3), pp. 228-240.

Rismark, M. and Sølvberg, A.M. (2007) Effective dialogues in driver education. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 39, pp. 600-605.

Schofield, J.W. (2002) Increasing the generalizability of qualitative research. In: Huberman, A.M. & Miles, M.B. (eds.) The qualitative researcher’s companion, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Scott, S.G. and Bruce, R.A. (1994) Determinants of innovative behavior: A path model of individual innovation in the workplace. Academy of Management Journal, 37(3), pp. 580-607.

Smith, P., Kesting, P. and Ulhøi, J.P. (2008) What are the driving forces of employee-driven innovation? Presented at the 9th International CINet Conference, Valencia, Spain, September 2008.

Stalk, G., Evans, P. and Shulman, L.E. (1992) Competing on capabilities: The new rules of corporate strategy. Harvard Business Review, March-April 1992, pp. 57-69.

Storper, M. (1997) The regional world: Territorial development in a global economy. New York, NY: Guildford Press.

Tidd, J. and Bessant, J. (2009) Managing Innovation. Integrating Technological, Market, and Organizational Change. 4th ed. Chichester: Wiley.

Tierney, P., Farmer, S. M., and Graen, G. B. (1999) An examination of leadership and employee creativity: The relevance of traits and relationships. Personnel Psychology, 52, pp. 591-620.

Van De Vrande, V., de Jong, J.P.J., Vanhaverbeke, W. and de Rochemont, M. (2009) Open innovation in SMEs: Trends, motives and management challenges. Technovation, 29 (6–7), pp. 423–437

Vanhaverbeke, W., Van De Vrande, V. and Chesbrough, H.W. (2008) Understanding the advantages of open innovation practices in corporate venturing in term of real options. Creativity and innovation management, 17, pp. 251-258

von Hippel, E. (1988) The Sources of innovation. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

von Hippel, E. (2005) Democratizing Innovation. Boston: MIT Press Books.

Whelan, E., Parise, S., de Valk, J. and Aalbers, R. (2011) Creating employee networks that deliver innovation. MIT Sloan Management Review, 53 (1), pp. 37-44.

Wilkinson, A. and Dundon, T. (2010) Direct employee participation. In: Wilkinson, A. et al, (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Participation in Organizations, New York: Oxford University Press.

Zwick, T. (2004) Employee participation and productivity. Labour Economics, 11 (6), pp. 715-740.
Aasen*, NTNU Social Research AS, 7491 Trondheim, Norway.

Did you find this article?
  • Interesting 
  • Useful 
  • Easy to read