The Goal: Innovate Your Company Out of Business

(Editor’s Note: Today’s post is brought to you by our friends at Kronos, the global leader in cloud-based workforce management solutions. I was honored to attend KronosWorks2013 this year with fellow HR bloggers Victorio Milian and Robin Schooling. This was one of my takeaways from the conference. Enjoy the post!)

Innovation is a very popular subject. We talk about the importance of innovation and how businesses need to innovate in order to be successful. But it wasn’t until I heard Kronos CEO Aron Ain talk about innovation that I felt like I heard a very practical, working definition of how to innovate. I’m paraphrasing here but the gist of it was “Innovation is the goal of trying to put your own company out of business.”

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If every company thought about how someone could put them out of business, think of the innovations that could be realized. If every employee was encouraged to speak up and bring ideas to the table that challenge the status quo, what kind of next new big thing would surface? After hearing Aron’s remarks, I was intrigued and asked if he would share his thoughts about innovation. Lucky for me, he graciously agreed. 

Let’s start with a definition. How does Kronos define innovation?

innovation, innovate, Kronos, KronosWorks, Aron Ain, culture, corporate culture, Kronos CEO[Ain] At Kronos, we challenge ourselves to innovate everywhere. With our products, innovation is about anticipating our customers’ workforce management needs and coming up with new ideas that no one has thought of. We look at how consumer products are influencing businesses. We look at how we can make our products incredibly easy to use to complement our unmatched and deep workforce management functionality.

But innovation is about more than products – it’s about looking at everything we do from a fresh perspective and experimenting along the way to improve ourselves, our customer experiences, our processes, etc.

You draw a distinction between making your current products better and innovation. Why is that?

[Ain] In order to improve our products, we must listen and respond to our customers’ feedback. We need to anticipate their needs and the challenges they face at the present time.  Sometimes this means adding features and functions in a very timely manner. It also means responding to the areas where we can drive down the total cost of ownership of our solutions. It may mean helping our customers respond to a change in their business practices that require a quick reaction.

Innovation is different; it’s about exposing our customers to ideas they may not have thought of. We challenge our product teams to imagine the workplace of the future. Three years ago, could you imagine a small device that tracks your sleep pattern, calories burned, or how far you walked that day? Wearable devices such as FuelBands and FitBits are becoming wildly popular, so we’re thinking about how we can leverage these devices in the workplace. And how about the way computer games tap into people’s natural desires for competition, achievement, and self-expression? We’re thinking about how we can leverage gamification in the workplace to motivate your frontline workforce to produce better products and deliver better services. These are just a few examples of the innovative ideas that we are exploring in our technology centers.

Many companies talk a good line about building an innovative culture. Kronos has really created an atmosphere where innovation thrives. How does Kronos encourage employees to truly innovate?

[Ain] From my perspective, culture is incredibly important.  It’s the glue that holds our company and our 3,700+ employees together. If we are successful in setting the right tone for our culture, then most of the other things – like delighting our customers or building an enduring brand – happens more naturally on its own. Culture helps guide all decisions, and it’s how we expect employees to behave and act. We have an inspiring culture in which we encourage Kronites (that’s what we call our employees) to experiment. It’s okay to make a mistake and learn from it.

We also believe the work environment lends to the innovation culture. For example, last year we invested millions of dollars in a new technology center in Massachusetts. The renovations were strategically designed to encourage employees to innovative. Living walls, bright colors, snacks, game rooms, and an open concept where employees can easily collaborate, help spark innovative ideas. It’s a really cool space. We also encourage innovation with our Kronovation days where we allow employees to work individually or in groups during allocated times to come up with ideas out of the mainstream of the daily roles to improve and advance our products. Our products today include innovation advances that came directly through the Kronovation day ideas.  It’s really cool when this happens. 

During your keynote at KronosWorks 2013, you emphasized the focus and resources Kronos places on research and development. Do you think it takes dedicated resources to innovate? Or can companies innovate in small increments of time?

[Ain] As I mentioned at KronosWorks, we spend more than $100 million on research and development every year. We’re investing and innovating like never before. It started with our new user interface (UI), and has worked its way through our time clocks and our mobile and tablet solutions, and now social collaboration and data visualization. It’s obvious that our investments have helped us innovate.

How do we specifically do this?  It is through dedicated resources, small teams, and established groups. There is no one answer at Kronos in terms of how we innovate.  We work hard to innovate in all areas all the time. We also innovate in bite-size pieces.  Every 90 days or so we are releasing new feature packs as part of our standard product.  Meaningful, rich, new features are offered at a rapid pace for our customer to decide if and how to use.  Some of our customers choose to be early adopters and try out the hot new features right away. Others choose to wait a bit and then decide.  It is the magic of our practices. We work hard to avoid forcing our customers to do what they are not prepared to do.

How do you see new tools like social collaboration impacting innovation?

[Ain] Social collaboration empowers employees, increases engagement, and builds a culture of team work and team building. Giving employees a platform to network with peers and make their ideas more visible sparks creativity and leads to innovative ideas. In some cases, there’s even an opportunity to introduce friendly competition within the workforce. The more ideas shared the better. Social collaboration allows employees to join forces, build upon one another’s ideas and experiences, and deliver innovative solutions. What is exciting with collaboration is that we are just at the start of this new, energetic area, allowing lots of opportunities for innovation and fun thinking. Should be exciting!

I want to thank Aron for sharing his insights and for allowing me to be a part of KronosWorks. If you’re interested in hearing more of Aron’s thoughts, you can follow him on Twitter. And while you’re at it, be sure to follow Kronos on Twitter, like them on Facebook, or connect on Google+. While companies can choose to innovate in many ways, one thing is clear. The way organizations embrace innovation has a definite impact on company culture, customer relations, and bottom-line profits.