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Ensure a Positive Candidate Experience When Hiring Contingent Talent Remotely

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March 10, 2021

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Business Yoga: Reaching Innovation Goals Means Traveling Multiple Paths

Last week, I dedicated my post to the rewards of innovation, because it’s one of the most critical conversations we should be having in the business community. To remain competitive, companies need to keep innovating -- solving problems and delivering value. And that means we must start treating innovation as a business discipline, not just a strategy or buzzword.

Understanding the Essence of Innovation

The concept of the sharing economy had many catalysts. Among the most preeminent were cloud computing and Software as a Service (SaaS). The measure of success for organizations began shifting away from the outcomes of mostly transactional processes. Consumers now pay for perceived value, and that has created a different kind of consumption economy. Years ago, for example, people prized the idea of car ownership. A vehicle became an investment, a status symbol, a means of independence. Today, many see greater value in ride-sharing. They save money on gas, insurance and maintenance. Transportation is on-demand and as-required.

However, true business innovations seldom endure by their novelty or newness alone. They must present solutions to ongoing problems or alleviate customer pain points. This is precisely why exponential technologies have gained so much traction. They’re improving lives and helping people transcend obstacles. Yet, as analysts at Simon-Kucher & Partners have determined, 72 percent of new innovations fail.

Citing the wisdom found in Monetizing Innovation: How Smart Companies Design the Product around the Price, an eye-opening book by Madhavan Ramanujam and Georg Tacke, I noted the four primary categories of “innovation failures.” The advice is essential for business leaders who are struggling to bring their solutions to market or realize a profit from their efforts.

Yet as Greg Satell illustrates in his work, Mapping Innovation, there’s a more overarching obstacle for organizational leaders to overcome: Understanding the different paths of innovation, embracing the varied approaches, and incorporating them into the fluid dynamics of their operational and cultural DNA.

In an article published yesterday by Harvard Business Review, Satell provided an insightful overview of these concepts. He opened with a vivid anecdote about a company that had secured a million-dollar contract to design a sensor capable of detecting pollutants in small concentrations of water.

It was an unusually complex problem, so the firm set up a team of crack microchip designers, and they started putting their heads together.

About 45 minutes into their first working session, the marine biologist assigned to their team walked in with a bag of clams and set them on the table. Seeing the confused looks of the chip designers, he explained that clams can detect pollutants at just a few parts per million, and when that happens, they open their shells.

As it turned out, they didn’t really need a fancy chip to detect pollutants -- just a simple one that could alert the system to clams opening their shells. “They saved $999,000 and ate the clams for dinner,” the executive told me.

Satell’s story captures the mixture of imagination and practicality that fuels meaningful breakthroughs. A past study of 17.9 million scientific papers determined that the most highly referenced innovations shared a fundamental commonality: blending traditional fields with unconventional ideas. The problem, Satell warns, is when organizations view innovation as beginning and ending here.

”But what if the task had been simply to make a chip that was 30% more efficient?” he mused. “In that case, a marine biologist dropping clams on the table would have been nothing more than a distraction. Or, what if the company needed to identify a new business model? Or what if — as is the case today — current chip technology is nearing its theoretical limits, and a completely new architecture needs to be dreamed up?”

There is no singular path to our innovation goals. When leaders trap themselves into believing there is, as Satell says, “they find themselves locked into a set of solutions that don’t fit the problems they need to solve. Essentially, they become square-peg companies in a round-hole world and lose relevance.”

Part of the wider issue, however, is that we continue to think of innovation in terms of thinking -- that is, we treat innovation as a concept, a notion, a vision for building something new. To liberate our creativity and genuinely expand the capabilities of our solutions, we should be concentrating on innovation as a discipline integrated into our business practices. Its power stretches far beyond an inspirational reflection or energetic brainstorming session. Innovation succeeds when it transforms into a set of tools that we use to accomplish specific objectives and solve problems.

Traveling Multiple Paths to Reach Your Innovation Goals

Like yoga, innovation is a set of practices and disciplines that help its practitioners attain a goal. And also like yoga, innovation offers different paths that are optimized to achieve certain results. Satell designed an Innovation Matrix to help organizational leaders identify the most productive path for a given challenge. The process begins with two simple questions: How well can we define the problem? And how well can we define the skill domain(s) needed to conquer it?

Sustaining Innovation

As Satell explains, this is the most accepted and common path for businesses. It’s rooted in improving those processes the organization is already performing. Let’s say you develop talent acquisition software. Your product is well-received and satisfies users. However, with more customers interested in utilizing freelancers, you recognize the opportunity for adding that functionality to your platform. Moreover, your development team has a good idea of how to expand the features. This fits the basic model of sustaining innovation.

  • The company wants to enhance its current offerings or capabilities in an existing market.
  • The company clearly understands the problems to be solved for its customers.
  • The company knows what skill sets and domain expertise are required to achieve the solution.

Conventional approaches typically prove effective here: strategic roadmapping, research and development, and acquiring new resources, where necessary.

Breakthrough Innovation

Breakthroughs represent the next level of sustaining innovation. The company grasps the challenge explicitly, yet the answer may be complicated, ambiguous or elusive. Satell’s example of detecting pollutants epitomizes the nature of a breakthrough innovation -- a situation where the traditional field requires unconventional external insight to devise an improvement.

Open innovation strategies can be highly effective in this regard, because they help to expose the problem to diverse skill domains,” writes Satell. In many ways, breakthrough innovations highlight the power of crowd-based business solutions. One of the most stunning validations of crowdsourcing involves a perplexing medical dilemma.

For more than a decade, an international group of scientists struggled to crack the molecular structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus. They eventually designed a puzzle-like game called Foldit that allowed players to manipulate molecular structures in a virtual environment. The sets appeared similar to colorful Tinkertoy pieces. The crowd solved the puzzle in less than 10 days.

It wasn’t long ago that I noticed similar complexities plaguing the staffing industry. Today’s businesses are facing urgent talent acquisition challenges. Chief among these are the antiquated ways talent is assessed and the ways that traditional agencies struggle to correlate recruiting with high performance and results. Our breakthrough innovation became Crowdstaffing. We brought unconventional outside thinking into a traditional field. We developed a new hiring ecosystem -- a unique technology platform, an ecosystem model and a crowd-based network of independent recruiters. This enables us to place over 20,000 local workers annually. And, it can scale to 1,000 partners with the capacity to deliver more than 150,000 local workers per year.

Through the crowd, we can also build unprecedented talent pipelines in advance of demand -- a proactive rather than reactive approach to hiring, which yields advances in operational efficiencies, cost containment, visibility, compliance and process optimization.

Disruptive Innovation

Even when companies appear to be doing everything right -- listening to their customers, investing in continuous improvements and adding value -- they may actually be stuck “getting better and better at things people want less and less,” as Satell notes. Technological shifts and fluctuations in the marketplace often pave the way for these pitfalls. In cases like this, as we discussed last September, innovating products and services won’t help -- organizations must innovate their business models.

Consider this cautionary tale. Until its bankruptcy in 2012, Kodak reigned as the undisputed and long-standing master of its domain. Its downfall occurred when the company failed to anticipate and prepare for the extreme disruption of the digital photography industry. It’s ironic because Kodak engineers developed a prototype digital imaging system in 1975. The issue, as most analysts see it, arose when the organization’s leadership didn’t take the threat of change seriously, plan to evolve, prepare for external circumstances or design a next-generation solution to combat inevitable obsolescence.

Instead, Kodak should have focused on injecting fresh energy into a model under stress -- concentrating on reinventing the company’s future instead of defending its past:

  • Refreshing the team
  • Repositioning the company to focus on its core strengths and solutions
  • Investing in new capabilities to complement and enhance the core, not allocating funds to develop products or services outside the core

Basic Research

”Pathbreaking innovations never arrive fully formed,” Satell observes. “They always begin with the discovery of some new phenomenon. No one could guess how Einstein’s discoveries would shape the world, or that Alan Turing’s universal computer would someday become a real thing. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said when asked about the impact of a major discovery, ‘I don’t know, but we’ll probably tax it.’ To his point, Einstein’s discoveries now play essential roles in technologies ranging from nuclear energy to computer technologies and GPS satellites.”

Not every company has the capital or resources to fashion robust innovation labs or research hubs. Startups and leaner organizations certainly can’t devote such substantial amounts of time and money to constructing a giant campus full of thought experiments and analysts. And yet these are the pioneers who continually break new ground. Leading research can be accessed in a variety of simple ways.

  • Federal government programs such as the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership
  • Online learning systems and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
  • Crowdsourcing
  • Seminars, associations and groups
  • Local university outreach

These are attitudes I encourage and promote within my own organization. We regularly participate in conferences to teach and learn about employment innovations, best practices, shared insights and methodologies for success. We understand that our growth is aligned with that of our clients. Right now, we’re actively building an Enterprise Talent Consortium, which has already attracted innovative executives from Walmart eCommerce, Uber, Gap, BMW, Philips and other thought-leading organizations.

When all's said and done, every business leader has a duty to pursue innovation. As long as we keep open minds, a sense of adventure, healthy curiosity and a willingness to explore different paths, we can reach our innovation goals.

Sunil Bagai
Sunil Bagai
Sunil is a Silicon Valley thought leader, speaker, motivator, and the visionary behind the groundbreaking Crowdstaffing ecosystem. Blending vision, technology, and business skills, he is transforming the talent acquisition landscape and the very nature of work. Prior to launching Crowdstaffing, Sunil honed his skills and experience as a business leader for companies such as IBM, EMC, and Symantec. "We need to think exponentially to mindfully architect the future of humanity, civilization, and work. When we collaborate and work together, everyone prospers."
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