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SE Masterclasses

Employee-Driven Innovation

Jo McQuarrie, Scottish Centre for Employment Research (SCER)

‘Employee-driven innovation refers to the generation and implementation of new ideas, products, and processes – including the everyday remaking of jobs and organizational practices – originating from the interaction of employees who are not assigned to this task.’   (Høyrup, 2012)

Employers are increasingly looking for new ways to engage the innovative potential of their people. That is why ‘Empowering Your Employees to Drive Innovation’ is the theme of the second event in our Scottish Enterprise Workplace Innovation Masterclass series.

Research at SCER is gathering numerous insights into employee-driven innovation (EDI) in Scotland that serve to highlight the complexity of the concept but also the potential of EDI as an organisational practice.

One example is in a high-end bakery setting with approximately 40 employees where staff are enabled to try different approaches to making operations more efficient to help grow the business. Given the science of baking, most products are associated with particular procedures for preparation. One employee, however, came up with the idea of adding to the number of procedures. The employee tried putting an appliance associated with a different process to new use by using it to finish the cooking process. The idea was to free-up capacity in the ovens sooner to enable greater throughput. On initial success, the employee took the idea to management who organised further testing around the proposed additional procedure before implementing it across the company.

Another example concerns the reorganisation of a large health service function through the implementation of robotics technology. Soon after the technology was operational, severe problems with it brought persistent stoppages during which the service had to resort to manual operations but without the established systems and procedures that had been in place previously, creating a highly stressful situation for all. From this crisis, employees and management engaged collaboratively in ‘real time’ problem-solving and found a solution in how work time and work practices could be better aligned to resolving the technology issues. To date, this new way of working remains in place and plays a crucial role in delivering the benefits of the technology.

In addition to the above insights, there are a number of activities reported elsewhere which signal a different approach to EDI in Scotland.

Education Scotland are championing an initiative around improvement in schools arguing that the delivery system has untapped capacity to build on knowledge and to innovate to close the attainment gap. To this end a partnership across schools, professions, and departments in local authorities has been set up in which collaborative enquiry is a key strategy. Education Scotland have instigated a number of projects to empower those stakeholders closest to the problem of attainment to research and trial new solutions. Early indicators are that there is a flow of innovative solutions facilitated by ‘learning from difference’ across the partnership.  

While the above all describe employee involvement in an innovative approach to problem-solving activity, according to key literature on EDI (Høyrup, 2012) only the bakery example describes ‘pure’ EDI; that is first order where employees instigate and progress solutions independent of management. The same literature, however, identifies two other forms of EDI which it refers to as second order, where employees engage in a more informal collaborative effort with management (the health service example), and third order where employees actively contribute to formal management-driven initiatives (the Education Scotland example).. So which so-called ‘form’ of EDI is best? The answer is ‘all of them’, depending on context.

Different contexts will support different ‘forms’. Using the examples above, Education Scotland have access to the national data that flags there is a problem around attainment and as such are in a position to initiate and coordinate a response. The baker on the frontline has the knowledge of the production process to see the problem and opportunity around capacity and as such is in the best position to test solutions. The health service workers and managers experienced different problems but were brought together by the same root cause in the technology and as such were best placed to collaborate to ensure the solution addressed the problem. Therefore, while first order EDI perhaps describes what most people imagine employee-driven innovation to be, the concept is broader and the ‘form’ of employee involvement is context-specific with the second and third orders being no less valuable in the particular situation.

Perhaps then, the terminology of EDI is unhelpful. Indeed, my own doctoral research has settled on the terminology Employee Involvement in Innovation (EII) which captures all expressions of involvement in problem-solving where it does not form part of an employees’ day to day work.  A further important observation is that one expression of EII is unlikely to exist without a further and different one within the same process as innovation navigates the dynamic ‘recursive loops’ in its journey. These further expressions may occur at different stages, each requiring a different set of supportive workplace practices and processes.  Identifying, understanding and learning from these dynamic and context- specific processes is the basis of my ongoing research.

EII, therefore, is a complex concept but this is ‘good’ complexity, serving to make it an accessible and useful concept for all businesses.

SCER specialises in helping companies to identify any blockages to employee involvement in innovation. To learn more about our Fair, Innovative and Transformative work (FITwork) tool, please enquire through:



Hoyrup, S. (2012), ‘Employee-Driven Innovation: A New Phenomenon, Concept and Mode of Innovation’, in Employee-Driven Innovation: A New Approach, S. Høyrup., M. Bonnafous-Boucher., C, Hasse., M, Lotz., and K. Møller. (eds.), Palgrave Macmillan, UK.




Why Workplace Innovation Matters for Scottish Business

By Dr Colin Lindsay, Project Co-ordinator, Workplace Innovation Masterclass Series supported by Scottish Enterprise


"Workplace Innovation brings together an organisation's people, processes and business relationships to develop new ways of working that benefit everyone."

Workplace innovation has gone from being a pretty obscure concept ten years ago to occupying a central place in strategies to promote productivity and inclusive growth in Scotland and beyond. It’s easy to understand why. There is an acceptance that effective and prosperous societies need agile, high performing businesses providing high quality jobs. ‘Innovation’ can no longer refer only to high-tech industries patenting cutting edge inventions. Instead, we need help companies across a wide range of sectors to engage with the idea of workplace innovation.

These ideas have been taken up at EU level by the European Commission, which continues to promote a broad understanding of workplace innovation – “innovations in the way organisations are structured, how they manage their human resources, the way internal decision-making and innovative processes are devised, the way relationships with clients and suppliers are organised and the way the work environments and internal support systems are designed”. As importantly, workplace innovation is a key component of Scotland’s Economic Strategy, where the Scottish Government has set out a vision for Scotland based on inclusive growth and fair work.

Workplace innovation is therefore about getting the best from your key resources to deliver on business objectives and improve the quality of jobs and workplaces, delivering ‘fair work’ for employees. This latter idea of fair work has come to be strongly linked with the workplace innovation agenda in Scotland. The Scottish Government has established – and continues to support – an independent Fair Work Convention, which has identified and promoted what makes fair work and good jobs. Fair work is clearly good for employees – people tend to be better off financially and in terms of wellbeing if they work in places where they have a sense of voice and fulfilment, a degree of security, opportunities to learn and progress, and where workers are treated with respect. But many of the components of fair work appear to be inter-connected with the conditions that allow employees and organisations to innovate. Fair work, and a positive and collaborative organisational climate where success is shared between the business and its people, encourages employees to engage in solving business challenges and creates the spaces where they can do so. This, in turn, can build a fertile environment for new ideas and innovation to drive the business forward.

But what does all this mean in practice and what can businesses do? The good news is that lots of work is ongoing to support the workplace innovation and fair work agendas in Scotland. My own team – led by Professor Patricia Findlay, who also sits on Scotland’s Fair Work Convention – recently completed the Innovating Works project, which identified innovative and progressive workplace practices in SMEs in Scotland. Check out our report for a summary of our findings. We are also working with employers across a range of sectors on actions to promote ‘Fair, innovative and transformative work’ – an idea that was central to the recommendations of the Fair Work Convention.

Scottish Enterprise is also taking forward an important agenda around workplace innovation. My own team is collaborating with Scottish Enterprise to deliver the Workplace Innovation Masterclass Series. This promises to be an exciting initiative bringing together employers, policymakers and experts to explore the latest evidence on ‘what works’ in promoting workplace innovation and fair work. We hope that a wide range of employers and stakeholders will be able to come along to one the Masterclasses or just link to our blogs and other resources at our dedicated LinkedIn Discussion Forum. 

Work and workplaces are going to be crucial to achieving Scotland’s objectives around sustainable innovation, fair work and inclusive growth. Fair and innovative workplaces can engage employees by focusing on good quality jobs that utilise their skills and develop their talents. The evidence suggests that employees supported in this way, in turn, deliver high levels of performance and future innovation. Our team is delighted to be working with Scotland’s employers as we build the fair and innovative workplaces of the future.