Companies Can Buy Technology, But Employees Drive Innovation

A group of professionals in an open work environment working in front of their computers

Posted on Mar 9, 2018

Innovation is often discussed in glowing terms, leaving us all with the impression that it’s a smooth, linear process. The reality, however, is that the pathway to innovation is littered with failure, conflict, and debate. One of those debates centers on the impact of automation on both competitiveness and employees. We’ve all heard the pundits pontificate whether today’s jobs will exist in the next 10 to 20 years due to automation.

The thought of robots taking over makes for good science fiction—but you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that human existence is not being threatened by artificial intelligence, mircroservices or the Cloud.

But we should still consider how automation will affect companies and the workforce of tomorrow. Retailers are using self-checkout. Financial services firms are embracing robo-advisers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Don’t make the mistaking of thinking that these changes automatically translate to unemployment. On the contrary, companies should seriously think about the future growth of their business. And technology should be viewed as an enabler of this growth, not a replacement for actual employees. Companies like Amazon, for example, have been able to grow precisely because of automation, whereby it assigns employees to perform more high-value tasks.

The Evolution of Work

Technology has reshaped our collective thinking about work, and we’ve seen this affect jobs and employees alike. Working remotely is a no-brainer. Sending e-mails on-the-go is universal. You’re probably even reading this (and hopefully sharing with your friends) from a mobile device that packs more computing power than computers used by NASA in 1969 – plus, it fits in your pocket.

The lesson here is that we should embrace the change, rather than worrying about how it may threaten our business. If you’re not convinced, here are some examples of how companies have embraced the future—and are reaping the rewards.
You Can’t Beat the Feeling: Coca-Cola

With two-way communication channels and social media, brands aren’t the only voice shaping perceptions about the value of their products and services. There are 328 million Twitter users, 1.94 billion Facebook users and 166 million people on Snapchat who can broadcast feelings about your brand in less than 30 seconds.

Recognizing this new reality, Coca-Cola empowered its 200,000+ employees to contribute to the dialogue through its Ambassador app. The goal was to enable its greatest resource, its employees, to engage the billions of people on social media. Rather than dedicating this effort to a single department, it increased employee engagement via social media and turned them into brand ambassadors.

But Coca-Cola isn’t stopping there. It has global partners, distributors, and suppliers. A next step for the beverage giant is to use this tool to work across its global markets, but on a local level. For example, by using its expertise on local markets, Coca-Cola can understand local timeframes for marketing, the available distribution channels, and the technical requirements.

With 100 million Facebook page likes, Coca-Cola seems to be on the right track.

Moving Forward: Toyota

We should point out that a shiny new tool won’t automatically turn your employees into social media mavens. Companies need to foster a culture that embraces change at every turn—much like Toyota.

As the granddaddy of Lean, Toyota has come to symbolize “all things innovative.” Realizing the growing concerns about gas prices and the impact of carbon emissions on the environment, Toyota was the first company to create a viable alternative with its Prius model. But Toyota’s real success is not just a single product. The auto manufacturer has revolutionized its entire model for production and engaging its workforce.

Toyota’s annual attrition rate for its production team has been consistently less than 3%. One of the ways it achieves this is with Lean principles that allow “kaizen” or continuous improvement.
According to Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota, “For much of Toyota's history, we have ensured the quality and reliability of our vehicles by placing a device called an “andon” cord on every production line—and empowering any team member to halt production if there's an assembly problem. Only when the problem is resolved does the line begin to move again.”

In the spirit of kaizen, whenever a problem arises in Toyota, everyone searches for the answer by asking “Why?” five times – thereby focusing on issues rather than blaming its employees.

Another factor contributing to its low attrition rate is the extensive training employees receive. They are trained to understand every aspect of the business. Consequently, when there are technological changes within Toyota, its employees are prepared to contribute to the company’s growth.

Delivering the Same Products, But Through More Channels

In a study by the CFA Institute, 70% of millennial investors stressed the importance of having digital offerings as a wealth management tool. Perhaps you’ve heard of automated (or robo) advising, where firms provide clients with financial advice vis-à-vis online solutions rather than humans. Should this be perceived as a threat to advisers’ livelihood?

According to the same study, “[T]he appeal of the do-it-yourself model is limited to a relatively small portion of consumers. Instead, a majority of clients want an enhanced experience that incorporates technologies alongside their adviser partner.”

In response, firms are embracing the opportunity to deliver the same products (i.e., investment advice) through more channels. For example, TIAA, the nearly 100-year-old retirement and insurance giant, has launched its robo-adviser to win the hearts (and dollars) of customers.

"It's a natural next step in our journey to support the financial well-being of many more people," Kathie Andrade, head of TIAA's retail financial services business.

All Roads (Don’t Necessarily) Lead to Rome

While the pace of technological change continues to increase, there are no guarantees in business. Change can lead to incredible growth opportunities for your organization. But just because you can buy technology doesn’t mean you can buy innovation. The latter requires discipline, focus and—most importantly—a dedicated team of employees who are prepared to ride along for the journey.