Balancing Innovation and Standards

Organizations are increasingly calling for more innovation, creating unique learning challenges. The CLO can help ensure that the education offered supports the business and drives innovation forward.

The call for innovation has become intense, insistent and invasive, and it is glibly assumed or proclaimed that unless anticipated, it has the potential to trigger a series of organizational dislocations. Some of the most obvious and problematic include roles like human resources, supervisors, research and development and senior staff.

Key questions for these roles include:

  • Human Resources: What are the key job descriptors for hiring creative types? Do they even exist?
  • Supervisors: How is innovation to be evaluated?
  • Research and Development: What happens to the traditional monopoly of R&D?
  • Senior Staff: Should a commitment to innovation compel revisiting and perhaps revising mission?
  • CEO: If this position were vested with modeling innovation, how many current CEOs would survive the test?
  • Chief Learning Officer: What happens to the standard array of offerings? What balance needs to be struck? What is the state-of-the-art and the standard of innovation training?

Although the focus of this article is limited to the last item, it is increasingly the fate of learning executives to inherit the whole ball of wax. To be sure, such 360-degree coverage may be a reassuring sign of not only the increasing centrality of learning, but also the extent to which human capital is now the equal of financial capital in any tally of intellectual capital. However, a holistic approach still requires us to see both the forest and the trees.

Striking a Balance
With innovation up front in the driver’s seat, a number of top-to-bottom and side-to-side transitions need to be addressed. Moreover, such an across-the-board commitment involves CLOs in a series of balancing acts, which seek to serve many masters even-handedly.

What are some of the most critical balances to be struck? The list is substantial, and it includes some familiar and some new items, all of which are challenging:

  • The first is always costs. Given tight budgets, what resources are available for new program development? Should innovation be developed in-house? Do we have the expertise? If outsourced, to whom?
  • Next is the learning management system (LMS) balancing act. What percentage of total offerings should be devoted to innovation? Or, should it be calculated differently? Instead of conceiving of innovation as an overhaul, why not consider it an overlay—a value-add to basic training? After all, shouldn’t a significant portion remain ongoing, incremental and continuous? Not everything should change focus. Otherwise, a fat tail of innovation may be wagging an anemic dog.
  • One of the toughest issues is evaluation. How will innovation be measured? Current standards and procedures for performance evaluation are probably inadequate. Must an entirely new system be developed from scratch, or can a hybrid be created? In either case, both the evaluation system and the innovation being measured have to be joined at the hip when introduced in training.
  • Administrative issues of implementation quickly surface. Shall it be selective or company-wide? Creativity experts argue for the latter, pointing out that innovation is curiously democratic and capricious, often selecting the most unlikely candidates. The other tack argues against squandering resources and, in the process, generating disappointing expectations. The difficulties and complexities of defining the selection criteria will win the argument for across-the-board implementation. Should this be adjusted by education, job and career level? Should it be based on individuals or teams? Who constitutes the first wave? The greater obstacles may dictate the course of action. Whatever the final decision, the related issue of assessing employee capacity for innovation quickly surfaces as a deciding factor.

That capacity relates to the kind of diagnostically driven test-and-train process that many CLOs have urged forward. But do these processes factor in thinking and learning profiles? Myers-Briggs certainly has factored in thinking, but not learning. Besides, it is most imperative to determine the patterns of learning preferences and styles that are most proximate to or even identical with innovation. In short, do we need a test for determining innovation quotient (IQ)? Does it already exist under different names and protocols?

Balancing requires that the relationship between productivity and innovation be renegotiated. While the holy grail of innovation is being pursued, with no guarantee of outcomes according to a fixed timetable, productivity must be maintained. Indeed, is the relationship between the two a break or a continuum? If it is the latter, then perhaps innovation should be considered the ultimate version of productivity—a new norm for all.

Incentives for Innovation
A constantly bedeviling issue is another relationship, that of incentives and innovation. Traditionally, reward systems have been incremental. More earned more. In many companies, innovation has been highly and visibly recognized in this fashion. Even joint patents have been filed. But is innovation like sales? Do incentives really motivate, or are we dealing with a different kind of animal altogether? Maybe an extraterrestrial?

Innovation is of two types: continuous and discontinuous. The first is incremental—the endless improvement of existing products and services. It preserves and ensures profitability, and it sustains cash flow.

Discontinuous innovation is out-of-the box. It is disruptive technology that has the potential to put the current organization out of business or to create an entirely new and competitive business. Indeed, such a disconnect from what currently exists is not only the infallible mark of genuine innovation, but also a demonstration of its fidelity to market dynamics and behaviors.

Clearly, both kinds of innovation should be pursued. Incremental reward systems should be maintained for continuous improvement. Granting a percentage share of the new business might be an appropriate way to stimulate a discontinuous kind of innovation. But balancing the two still requires a mixture of sure and steady progress toward that final eureka moment. Above all, if innovation becomes a company-wide commitment, then the standard process of inquiry is upped to a process of discovery. Even if no breakthroughs occur at all, such general gains benefit all and help to shape an innovative culture. Innovation is not only about the future—it is the future.

The New State-of-the-Art
Finally, if you review the history of creativity training since the end of WWII, you’ll notice the ups and downs of a faddish phenomenon. Now, matters are much different. Now there is a new state-of-the-art. Innovation is currently the object of brain research, cognitive science and psychology, and genetics. Now a variation called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) enables direct study of brain activity and its learning pathways while responses are given to certain trigger questions. This is not unlike real-time data’s impact on operational and decision-making processes, which makes them more transparent and accessible.

Clearly, what may emerge from such studies is not only a series of methods to generally improve the effectiveness of training, but also factors that stir the brain to combine opposites and to innovate. It is possible, then, that the geometric growth rates between technology and cognition are not only alike, but also reinforcing. Their common quantum leaps, like innovation itself, may be so reverberating and ongoing that they have to be regarded constantly as works in progress. Even their tandem relationship may result in parallel lines meeting.

Innovation Solutions
What a crushing range of challenges to drop on CLOs and their LMSs! Is there any relief available? Have any or enough companies already gone through the process to provide a model or at least a series of guidelines? A number of issues of Chief Learning Officer magazine have featured profiles and case studies that have contained some examples of commitment to and success with innovation induction.

What follows is a distillation of the essentials of those examples arranged in a series of first steps. The order is not prescriptive. The list is offered here as a way of moving forward in a balanced and comprehensive way. It is also generic, to accommodate the variety of enterprises, the diversity of their cultures and strategic plans and their point in the process—beginning, middle or mature stages. Minimally, there are three steps: research and best practices inventory, balancing strategies and priorities, and implementation and evaluation.

Research and Best Practices Inventory
CLOs have to compile an inventory in at least three areas. They must survey and monitor the findings of brain research, cognitive science and genetic impacts on thinking, learning and leading. Particular attention should be paid to the cognition publications of the MIT Press. A search for best practices requires reviewing the literature and LMS programs for current models of innovation learning, especially e-versions. National conferences often feature state-of-the art presentations. In addition to the standard and familiar ones, consider attending SALT (Society for Alternative Technology).

Finally, there is a need to increase the knowledge of and commitment to employee testing and profiling. High on that list would be the development of a new IQ (innovation quotient) test. A less sensational approach would be an idea quotient.

Thomas Edison gave himself and all of his employees idea quotas and required them to keep idea diaries. He divided them into major and minor ideas. The former disturbed the universe, while the latter changed or refreshed the way things were done. Both operated within a six-month timetable. Edison gave himself one big and six smaller ideas as his goals.

Aside from reflecting the differences between continuous and discontinuous innovation already noted, Edison wisely opted to take a threshold approach. Ideas are proximate to innovation. They are inevitably embryonic. Ideas are also less intimidating and precious than creativity, but they are rare enough to offer the road less traveled. They answer the familiar criticism: “When was the last time the organization came up with a new idea?” Thus, idea generating could be the learning focus for innovation training.

Balancing Strategies and Priorities
Balancing requires aligning and fusing continuity and discontinuity so that both kinds of innovation can be pursued separately and in parallel. The gains must always be doubling. In addition, productivity and innovation need to be perceived as a continuum. Innovation is the ultimate version of productivity. Such a spectrum also accommodates using innovation as an overlay rather than an overhaul of the current program.

Implementation and Evaluation
Consider sharing the discussion and decision of whether to implement selectively or across-the- board with senior staff and divisional heads. At the very least, seek consensus on who would go first and why. Follow that with divisional receptivity and particularly with senior staff members’ recommendations of specialized contributions to innovation.

Whether implementation is partial or total, evaluation has to be across-the-board. Whether a supplement or a completely new system is developed, innovation has to become a performance norm for everyone. Its application would range from new hires to retirement (normal or hastened). Minimally, it would be a double-layered structure, containing both company-wide criteria as well as specific divisional or specialization standards, as long as those latter expectations neither exceeded nor fell below those of the company as whole. Innovation would be defined as the ultimate stage of productivity and could be included in all job descriptions.

This may appear to be a substantial effort to ask of current learning executives and the systems that support their initiatives, but it now goes with the expanded territory. Given the prospect of dramatically changing the cultural focus of an entire enterprise and presiding over its critical transition, CLOs need to recall and be braced by the call of Arnold Toynbee: “The greater the challenge, the greater the response.” In many ways, the challenge of innovation, especially balancing its many linkages and alignments, may signal that the time is ripe for CLOs to come into their own.

One note of caution: Innovation has to be treated with kid gloves—almost with reverence. It is more mystery than mastery. It is different, not just in degree, but also in kind from standard and incremental knowledge acquisition. Without appearing precious, at one extreme innovation is incandescence—the realm of mystics and artists. At the other extreme, it is the ultimate triumph of problem solving. Neither extreme can be produced by those who are comfortable with routine operations and habitual language.

Irving H. Buchen is vice president of academic affairs at Aspen University. He can be reached at

November 2004 Table of Contents