What if salespeople were to receive their bonus pay not based on sales results but on customer satisfaction? What impact would this have for a company in terms of customer loyalty?
And what if companies were to adopt more flexible working hours and give more autonomy to their employees? Or encourage them to take training programmes to maintain their employability on the market?
“There are many new ideas which are not technological innovations that can help companies increase their performance,” says Andries de Grip, Chair of the Board of Network Social Innovation, Head of research on employment and training at the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA), and Professor of Economics at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics. “These ideas can be new practices in human resource management (HRM) and can be seen as valuable social innovations.”
“What we observe, however,” notes De Grip, “is that many companies don’t have a culture in HRM of doing research and development (R&D) to find the optimal solution for their specific goals.”
“As a consequence, not only are they reinventing the wheel every time but they’re also making mistakes in the sense that what works for one firm doesn’t necessarily for another. Merely introducing a new HRM tool doesn’t do the trick.”
Network Social Innovation
Created at Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics in 2006, Network Social Innovation (NSI) runs research and development projects in social innovations for companies, education institutes and governmental organizations, among others.
One of NSI’s recent projects was conducted in early 2012 at the request of the Province of Limburg and sought to give an overview of social innovation practices in Limburg companies.
“The Province of Limburg sees it as a priority to attract people with higher potential and wants to show them that they can also find career opportunities here,” says De Grip. “That’s why it is important to find out how well Limburg companies and non-commercial organizations are doing in terms of various aspects of social innovation such as talent development, self-organizing capacity and speed of internal adjustment.”
Wim Weijnen, director Limburg Employers Association
To achieve this goal, NSI decided to develop a Social Innovation Monitor for Limburg and contacted the best partner to do so, namely the Limburg Employers Association LWV.
NSI set up and carried out a survey among all members of LWV and was surprised at the high response rate of 35 percent. “Even Statistics Netherlands don’t have this kind of response rate when they do a firm survey,” commented De Grip. “This high result was a proof, not only for NSI but also for LWV, of the high level of interest in this topic.”
De Grip explained that NSI offered an added insight for the companies who filled out the survey.
“We gave them a benchmark by comparing their scores to the average score of the other firms in their industry, and this data was very interesting for them because it gave them some hard evidence on their relative performance.”
De Grip emphasized that these private results were given back to the firms only and were not shared with the employers’ organisation. Providing this service had a positive outcome for NSI too. “Some firms contacted me later on the findings of the survey. This may lead to one or two research projects for NSI,” said De Grip.
Presentation of the report “Social Innovation Monitor Limburg 2012″ at the NSI-LWV symposium on 13 September 2012
Investing in research and knowledge
The NSI team is aware that the survey, which was carried out in February 2012 with 383 responding companies, was a self-assessment performed by the firms themselves and that the answers may be seen as positively biased.
De Grip observed, however, that even when companies gave themselves a high score in a particular area, they know that they might not perform as well in a more competitive environment. “Firms are aware that it is always possible to do better,” he said.
NSI sees this survey as a promising first step in mapping social innovation in Limburg companies. “The question on ‘Opportunity for internal adjustment’ didn’t score very high. This was an indication for us that the companies were willing to give honest answers.”
In a next step, the survey could be broadened to a larger group of organizations. “During the debate that followed the presentation of our final report last September, we asked ourselves what the results would look like if we were to carry out the same survey among employees as well,” he said.
NSI sees many advantages in conducting this type of research for its own positioning in the market. “As a network, we were able to establish a good contact with local companies and this may be the start of an enduring relationship,” said De Grip. “We see it as an investment which may bring us all kinds of opportunities which we may not have been aware of at the start.”
For the time being, the Social Innovation Monitor Limburg is the only research project of its kind in the Netherlands. “Together with our partners within the INSCOPE initiative, we are considering implementing it in other provinces too, but we would first like to develop and improve our knowledge further until we have a very appealing product to offer, including an employees’ survey.”
Engaging in the public debate
NSI does not limit its activities to research activities. The network also wants to be involved and play an active role in the public debate in the Netherlands on specific issues on social innovation.
With this purpose in mind, it works closely together with a think tank consisting of representatives from the business community as well as education and governmental institutions to identify social questions worth researching.
The network brings matters of social innovation to the public sphere by publishing opinion pieces in the local and national press.
Example of social innovation: The Dolmans Landscaping Group established a public-private joint venture with the social welfare services
In a recent article that appeared in Dagblad De Limburg, De Grip shared an interesting example of social innovation implemented by a local company specialized in landscape gardening.
The Dolmans Landscaping Group decided to work with people with developmental disabilities and established a joint venture initiative with the social welfare services. This innovative public-private partnership not only allowed the firm to collect certain governmental subsidies but also turned out to be a very positive experience for all parties on various levels.
“Sustainability is one of the buzz words in the business world at the moment,” explained De Grip, “and for many companies, the concept includes social engagement.”
“This initiative gives a positive social image to a firm like the Dolmans group, whose clients are local governmental organisations and education institutes, including Maastricht University.”
“Moreover,” continued De Grip, “the company also noted that its decision had had a positive influence among employees, in the sense that the social culture within the company had improved and that workers showed more care towards each other.”
For De Grip, social innovation practices are paving the way to new forms of entrepreneurship.
“Managers can get cold feet at the thought of implementing new ideas, because of the level of risk and uncertainty involved,” he said. “But by doing so, they also show courage.”
“Call it entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship.”