UCL School of Management

23 February 2021

How short assignments for front-line employees can boost innovation

Photo of two men and one woman gathered around a laptop in a car manufacturing plant.

There are real benefits to be seen when front-line employees exchange knowledge and ideas to foster an innovative organisational culture, according to an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review from UCL School of Management’s Bilal Gokpinar and co-authors Phillip Cornelius and Fabian Sting from Rotterdam School of Management and the University of Cologne

Based on their recent research paper ‘Sparking Manufacturing Innovation: How Temporary Interplant Assignments Increase Employee Idea Values,’ their work shows, for the first time, how strategic front-line mobility — the short, focused, and purposeful exchange of staff members between different company sites — can substantially boost employees’ contributions to innovation and organisational learning in manufacturing companies.

This large-scale study examined a multinational, multibillion-euro car parts manufacturer where Gokpinar et al collected data on front-line ideas and their economic impact over four years and examined their relationship with individual worker mobility.

The researchers suggest there are two distinct pathways through which front-line mobility foster’s innovation and highlighted their benefits;

Knowledge Transfer – Creating Cost Savings
Front-line employees possess a wealth of production knowledge at an extremely high level of detail and have first-hand experience resolving well-intentioned but occasionally impractical processes and product designs. When employees are strategically deployed to different sites, they carry this knowledge with them and help circulate it within the company.

The impact of such knowledge transfer can also bring significant financial gains to an organisation, with the study showing an average move created manufacturing improvements worth more than 100,000 euros ($122,000) within one month.

Employee Learning -  Creating Better Innovators
Observing how different setups of similar manufacturing processes are linked to various performance outcomes, provides employees with a more fundamental understanding of how these processes work which gives rise to a know-why approach to working rather than the more common, know-how.

This way of thinking significantly improves employees’ ability to come up with innovations, as they better understand how the different pieces of the manufacturing process fit together and therefore how they can be enhanced.

The study suggests that in order for this type of innovation to work, businesses need to apply it on a small-scale and should only involve around 3% of workers. Employee assignments must be purposeful and problem-driven with a plant that shares similar processes and machinery to allow the knowledge and innovations to be replicated in the employee’s environment.

Read the full article in MIT Sloan Management Review (subscription required to access full article)

Last updated Wednesday, 24 February 2021