InsightsPOSTED March 12, 2015

Are CEOs engaging to foster innovation?

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In a rapidly changing landscape, it’s critical for organizations to stay on top, and ahead of, a myriad of competitive, technical, human resource and operational challenges.

Understanding what is on the minds of senior leadership and providing strategic counsel on how to navigate through this complex landscape will enable public relations professionals to become allies and trusted advisors.

According to a Price Waterhouse Cooper annual CEO survey in 2014, overall, Canadian CEOs are confident about the future growth of their company, and innovation is one area that is top of mind.

While 65 per cent of CEOs see “developing an innovation ecosystem that supports growth as an organizational priority,” the study also found that there is uncertainty around where to focus their innovation efforts.

Organizations play a critical role in driving innovation, and research suggests that stakeholder engagement is key to fuelling innovation, strengthening competition, adapting technologies, encouraging exchange of information and knowledge exploration.[1]

CEOs support stakeholder engagement to foster innovation

As part of my Master’s Degree in Communications Management at McMaster University, I recently conducted interviews with five Canadian CEOs of companies ranging in sector and size of 12 to 4000 employees.

This study explored their view on the role of stakeholder engagement and relationship management as a means to foster innovation, as it is linked to driving organizational success.

Here are a few key findings from my CEO discussions:

  • To at least some degree, innovation is important to driving success at their respective organizations. For some, innovation is at the “core” of their business and for other it’s not necessarily top-of-mind – but nonetheless important for some elements of their business such as growth.
  • Not surprisingly, innovation is more clearly considered an important element in organizations in the technological sector, whereas others, such as property management, felt there were occasions when consistency was more important.
  • When exploring the extent to which CEOs engage with stakeholders to get their input and opinions to support innovation, there was a notable distinction between internal and external stakeholder engagement.
  • All CEOs discussed the importance of engaging with employees at all levels to support innovation by encouraging information exchange and collaboration.
  • Generally speaking, the CEOs were very supportive of engaging with external stakeholders such as industry peers, customers, distributors, government, and community members to help them foster innovation.

Trust is key in stakeholder dialogue related to innovation

Several CEOs raised risk factors of engaging with external stakeholder regarding innovation such as information leakage and anti-competition issues, which must be avoided.

To get the most out of stakeholder engagement to foster innovation, these CEOs shared the following observations:

  • Focus on building relationships with the right people to inform about best practices, emerging trends, and competitive forces.
  • Be strategic about who you invite into your engagement process.

These findings highlight the element of trust necessary to build confidence and minimize risks and fears when engaging with stakeholders as a means to foster innovation [2].

CEOs look to business leaders; communications professionals not top of mind

These CEOs clearly do see a role for public relations in facilitating stakeholder engagement to drive innovation through environmental scanning, identifying channels to reach stakeholders and develop messaging.

However, they consistently identified their senior executives, business leads and external business advisors as their primary support in this area.

These findings suggest that communications professionals are not immediately top of mind for CEOs as it relates to driving business results through innovation and stakeholder engagement.

Rather, they look to business leaders tied to specific areas of expertise or regions to help identify the influencers with whom they should engage.

A challenge for public relations professionals

This research presents an exciting challenge for public relations professionals to seek out opportunities to guide and influence an organization’s stakeholder engagement process and support organizational innovation.

Communications professionals are in a unique position to identify relevant, influential stakeholders, integrate them together and build the necessary networks to achieve innovation and innovate ways of thinking.

As a communicator, how are you showing value in your work to make it top of mind?

This research was completed by Merissa King, account manager at APEX PR and MCM candidate at McMaster University.

[1] Bebee, 2012; Hohnen, 2007; & Gould, 2012.

[2] Myers & Cheug, 2008; Gould, 2012; Spicer, 2007; Holme 2013; & Hung 2007.

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