Innovative HR?

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles and blog postings lately on innovation. There’s lots of interest and everyone wants to be known as an innovator. Innovation is a nice buzzword and I suspect it will be a moneymaker for consultants over the next few years. But like all buzzwords, it misses the point.

Why do we want to innovate? No, really – why? Other than it’s fun to be different, the only business reason that comes to mind is to gain a competitive advantage; to offer customers something they can’t get elsewhere. When talking about innovative companies, the focus is almost always on the product.The problem is that novel ideas are easily copied and improved upon. What makes the innovative companies innovative is rarely the product itself.

What really seems to set innovative companies apart is the execution of their products and services and their focus on the customer. They have high attention to detail and design their products and services around how the customer wants to use them. Apple is a great example (no, you can’t write about innovation without mentioning Apple).  What set the iPod apart from all the other MP3 players on the market? It was really, really easy to use, distinctive looking (who knew refrigerator white could be a cool color?), and had plenty of accessories available both from Apple and the aftermarket. But what blew everyone away was iTunes. We take iTunes for granted now, but it showed that Apple really understood how the customer would want to use an MP3 player from start to finish. They understood that customers didn’t want an MP3 player – they wanted a simple and easy way to find, purchase, and listen to music.

And then there is the ubiquitous iPhone. Sure the iPhone is neat, but here’s an example of the level of thought Apple put into the details and understanding the customer’s experience from start to finish. What’s the very first thing the customer experiences when they purchase an iPhone? The packaging. It is elegant, intricate, minimal, and shows amazing attention to detail. It contains everything needed to get started yet is tiny and easy to store. It also benefits Apple. Less packaging means lower materials costs, lower shipping costs, lower storage costs, and higher profits. Everyone benefits. That’s innovation! Apple didn’t invent boxes, they just did a far better job of executing. And, no, the box isn’t the most innovative thing about the product and no one is going to buy a phone because it has great packaging (we don’t even see the box until we’re handing over our money). It is just an example of the attention to detail given to every aspect of the product. Too many companies focus solely on the product and overlook all the ways that the customer uses and interacts with the product, from the very beginning to the very end.

All of which has me wondering how can HR give the employees they serve a better overall experience like Apple does? There’s an old adage that engineers should be forced to use the products that they design. Unless they do, they never truly understand how the customer uses the product. Too often we only focus on how we interact with the customer and completely ignore how the customer interacts with us. You want innovative HR? Try using your services like a customer from start to finish:

  • What’s it like to apply to your company?
  • How easy is it to find the careers section?
  • How clear and attractive are the job postings?
  • How simple is it to complete an application or submit a resume?
  • How understandable is the process? How well is it explained in advance?
  • In what ways does the process and your interaction make them feel like you’re interested in them vs being another name in the database?
  • How much of your company’s personality comes through in the hiring process?
  • How much of a realistic job preview do you give?

Obviously, this is just one aspect of HR. This same process can be applied to all HR services and processes.

Innovation isn’t for the creatively blessed. Innovation can be had by anyone willing to pay attention to details and understand things from the customer’s perspective. How innovative are you? How well do you understand your customer’s experience? Don’t just ask the questions, try out your own processes from the user’s perspective.


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