Innovation in schools…

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After presenting some examples in previous posts of how human innovation takes place in some companies, I would like to share today some stories about successful innovations in schools in 3 European countries where I have lived: Germany, Spain and France.

In Berlin, not far from the impressive Museum Island, you will find the ESBC (Evangelical School Berlin Centre). Despite its “evangelic” name, only 1/3 of the students are baptized and classes are very heterogeneous in terms of profiles, origins and cultures. The philosophy of this school is very clear: in the current fast-changing progressively digital world, the key mission of a school is to develop students with determination and strong personalities, able to make the most of constant change thanks to a strong ability to motivate themselves.

According to Margret Rasfeld, the school’s headteacher, “nothing motivates students more than when they discover the meaning behind a subject of their own accord” and therefore, there are no grades or exams in this school. Indeed, until they turn 15, students decide the subjects they want to work on in each lesson and when they want their exams to take place. And actually, when exams can be avoided, students can propose other ways to prove their skills, for example by coding a videogame. There are few subjects set in advance, namely Maths, German, English and Social Studies as well as more innovative ones such as a “challenge” course, in which students are sent on an adventure fully planned and organized by themselves, such as trekking abroad or working in a farm.

More and more schools in Germany want to adopt this philosophy not only for its novelty, but also for its results, as year after year the students of this institution have better results that the other Berlin schools. Other schools in the country are adopting these methods and rely on the teaching materials that are developed at the “education innovation lab” of the school. For the moment they are 40 but the number keeps increasing…

2,000 Km away from Berlin, “Las Musas” high school in eastern Madrid also has an innovative approach to conflict management. Indeed, they launched 3 years ago a peer mediation program with the objective of preventing bullying (suffered by 1 student out of 10 according to “Save the Children”) and any other conflicts that may arise in the school. This includes anticipating new possible ones, for example by paying attention and spending some time with students seeming lonely or having integration problems. The peer mediation team is very small, it is only composed by 16 students out of 1,300 in the high school, aged between 12 and 14. What is important is that the members of this team are chosen by their peers in the school, which gives them the legitimacy to act. The skills needed for this mission are among other communication skills, conflict management, active listening, empathy and social skills.

So, how does this peer mediation actually work? It is very simple. Students having a conflict are first of all encouraged by mediators to find a solution informally by themselves. For example, in the past, two students having had a fight agreed to do a presentation about violence in front of their class. If this first level does not work, any of the parts can ask for a formal mediation, that is, a meeting with the mediators (and sometimes a teacher). During this meeting, mediators listen to both versions, take notes and help find a solution which is agreed by both parts with a 15 days follow-up. Most of the problems of the school are solved through this channel.

This approach has some major benefits. First, being among the students allows mediators to have a much sharper view of the problems and of the possible fair solutions. Furthermore, they manage to get information not accessible to adults, such as some personal problems, or some conflicts on social networks. The good news is that mediation can reach even this level. Indeed, if mediators see a possible conflict starting for example in a whatsapp, they can send the logo of the mediation team to the group to remind everyone of their presence, what usually puts the tension away. Second, this approach is also positive for the mediators, who perceive it as a unique learning experience allowing them to develop social skills useful even outside the school. Finally, people involved in such initiatives consider that peer mediation is very positive even beyond the context of the school, as it empowers students and makes them learn to become committed and trustful citizens. This initiative can also be found in other regions of Spain, such as the Basque country, Catalonia or the Valencia region, where a recent study highlights that 90% of the students would strongly recommend this system. Other countries are very active in this type of initiatives too, such as Finland, which has been using them for long time now.

1,000 km away from this high school in Madrid and about 5 km away from where I write this blog entry, the “Ecole élémentaire Dunois” in Paris also adopts a quite innovative approach to some of its activities. For example, self-management is strongly encouraged and these 9-year old students are used to propose and vote solutions to solve the problems the class finds. Also, students can choose the subject they want to work on among the ones proposed by the teacher and work at their own rhythm monitoring their progress via an “individual work plan”. Furthermore, students can work in pairs and mark their peer’s homework under teacher supervision (funnily enough, this trend of relying on peers for learning and development is more and more present in Executive Education too). Finally, mornings often start with a “what’s new?” ritual, during which each student shares any news or subject he/she wants to share with the class or by filling a self-reflection school journal that each student has. These are just some examples of the Freinet philosophy, created in the 1920’s by Frenchman Célestin Freinet and followed by the school. This philosophy is also called “the pedagogy of the chosen work”, because according to a teacher of this school, when students express themselves through their work, they decide voluntarily to take work and it becomes a need. Like the ESBC school in Berlin, this shows the importance given to developing the self-motivation, the autonomy and the uniqueness of each students.

In order to encourage innovation in schools, the French ministry for Education launches an annual contest in which schools all over the country share their innovations and apply to specific categories such as “avoiding school drop-out” or “primary schools evolution”. In this category, the winner idea this year was the “Twictée” a collaborative learning device to improve orthography inspired by Twitter. After the contest, a Top 30 of the most innovative initiatives in published by the ministry. I consider this is a simple yet powerful way to encourage and value innovation in schools.

There are of course many other innovative initiatives taking place in the schools all over the world, but I found interesting to highlight some concrete inspiring examples here. After all, schools educate and develop future generations, who will have in their hands the difficult task of inventing the future of the world – the sooner they get in contact with innovation, the better!

Sources:

“No grades, no timetable: Berlin school turns teaching upside down” (The Guardian, july 2016)

“Chavales que atajan el acoso de raíz” – in Spanish (El País, March 2016)

“La méthode Freinet, une pédagogie innovante au cœur de l’école publique” – in French (Le Monde, September 2014)

TOP 30, cahier des actions school initiatives, journée de l’innovation – in French (French ministry of Education, March 2016)

 

What if organizations started proposing “double part-time” jobs?

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I came up with this idea during one of the last HR innovation workshops I run… what if, instead of proposing classic full-time positions to employees, organizations started proposing also two “part-time jobs”, or, if you prefer, two half positions to some of its staff? I proposed that idea to a working group during that workshop and they included it in their HR innovation action plan; maybe it was not this bad.

To give some concrete examples about what this idea would mean in Human Resource jobs, a person could be in charge of internal talent identification half of the week, and the rest of it design talent development programmes within the company’s Corporate University, which is not the case it big groups nowadays. An employee could manage workforce planning in the mornings and work as a campus manager in the afternoons, and an HRBP could spend half of its time as internal HR consultant; all of them would suppose original job combinations creating synergies among these activities. You may have noticed I did not mention C&B in my examples because these people often work 150% and maths would work with the rest of jobs!

Taking it further, what if only one of the two “part-time jobs” was in HR and not the other? An employee could work for example as HR Business Partner in the IT division part of its time and as IT project manager too. Also, a same person could work in business strategy and in workforce planning too. Even a common theme could connect both jobs: for example, concerning the subject of change management, an employee could work both as team leader managing change, for example in operations or in finance, and also work part-time as training officer in charge of change management trainings.

I see several benefits to this “double part-time approach” that could suppose a competitive advantage to companies proposing it. First of all, it would be highly appealing to fresh graduates willing to discover several positions and businesses in the organization they join, something they ask more and more often to their employers. Second, this could also contribute to reinforce staff engagement, as it strengthens employability, skill development, transversal competencies, and job/assignments diversity, some of the aspects often mentioned in engagement surveys. In both benefits mentioned, this could be a powerful weapon in the war for talent all organizations face. Third, this approach would allow organizations to establish new value-creating synergies among jobs and businesses (such as the ones mentioned earlier) and also reinforce cooperation between the departments involved: going back to the IT example I mentioned before, probably an employee would be more partnership-oriented with his HR colleagues if that HR team was his own team 50% of the time, right? Finally, this idea would also reinforce team spirit in organizations, because 50% of the success of your job would depend on a colleague of yours!

Several conditions would nevertheless be necessary for this approach to work. First, it should of course concern jobs requiring similar skills, otherwise, the benefits just mentioned would not be possible. The easiest way of launching such and initiative would be, at least at the beginning, that two employees switch 50% of their job with each other, therefore becoming some kind of “part-time buddies”. A second condition would therefore be that these “buddies” establish a very clear and formalized working functioning including dedicated information sharing and briefing moments to avoid any possible operational risks in their sharing of responsibilities. The managers of both buddies would of course need to be aware of this functioning process, or even have to approve it before it is actually implemented. More generally, companies should probably need to accompany the employees in this new way of working through training, an advisor or an informal community of exchange gathering all staff concerned. A third condition would be that a very clear communication towards internal and external partners is established for them to understand the benefits of this innovation so that they also see it as value-creating for them. The working dynamics between the employees involved and their partners would also change, and “buddies” should therefore also make sure they onboard all stakeholders in this new working and collaboration style. Finally, jobs involved should have a certain degree of link or connection in terms of contents or business area, otherwise people concerned would probably feel too “lost in translation” on day-to-day activities and the synergies mentioned would not actually happen.

This approach would of course have an impact on some organizational aspects that companies should anticipate and manage, such as team management and dynamics, appraisal and remuneration, or legal and social relations among others. However, if the people and the jobs are well chosen and accompanied, and if all stakeholders are also well informed, this idea has a lot of potential to me taking into account the benefits presented. Launching such an initiative would of course involve some risk taking, but hey, innovation is about taking some risks before your competitors, when you consider it is worth it!

A good way to test such an innovation would be via a POC (proof of concept) with some “part-time buddies” the organization would identify and train. You could even do some communication about it within the firm and propose that staff interested in taking part in the POC are in charge of finding their “buddy” and propose some kind of roadmap presenting the way in which they would work and the synergies and benefits expected. An internal committee could then rate the proposals and approve the ones that make the most sense concerning the strategy of the organization.

In a world in which companies trust almost blindly on digital as their main source or reinvention, what if such an “old school” innovation could be an unexpected source of competitive advantage and contribute to shape the future of work?

Why focus on HR Innovation?

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Albert Einstein used to say that creativity is intelligence having fun. And I strongly believe that more creativity and fun would allow companies to find better and more innovative solutions to the People Management challenges they face. But concretely, how can this creativity be used to produce innovative outcomes? I particularly like Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt’s quote: “creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things”. Therefore, HR innovation is not only having good ideas in the HR fields, but above all about making them happen and succeed in organizations.

Some HR teams are already leveraging on innovation to find alternative and more effective solutions to the challenges they face in HR fields such as recruitment, people development or career management, but this is only the beginning. Indeed, innovation has never been among the classical strengths of the HR function, but therefore, this also constitutes a unique opportunity for companies to build a new generation of really innovative HR professionals able to contribute in a more original and impactful way to the strategy of organizations.

According to few signs, HR innovation starts being (and above all will become) more and more critical in organizations. For example, in a recent study carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) involving 300 HR and business leaders, HR innovation has even been highlighted as the top priority for HR professionals. Indeed, 35% of these HR leaders consider HR innovation as their most critical business priority beyond for example talent or performance management. Non-HR business leaders also highlight the importance of innovation in this same report.

Furthermore, in another recent study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, more that 1,500 executives were asked to identify the top challenges for their organizations over the next five to 10 years. The most critical challenge highlighted is people management (28% of the votes) and the second is innovation (20% of the votes). Is that random that people management and innovation are precisely the two most pressing challenges identified? I personally don’t think so!

The rising importance of HR innovation can also be observed on the field. Just to give an example (many other examples will follow in this blog), a Lab dedicated to HR innovation was launched some months ago in France, country in which I currently live. Supported both by public and private institutions, the “Lab HR” aims to boost and promote HR Innovation by bringing together key players in HR Innovation, such as start-ups, big companies or public actors.

Finally, a very inspiring book appeared last year : « The Rise of HR – wisdom from 73 thought leaders », by the HR Certification Institute and edited by Dave Ulrich among others. This book invites top HR leaders and experts worldwide to share their views on the main challenges HR professionals face and how this will shape the future of the HR function. It is a very inspiring book that I will probably further comment in future posts in this blog. What I find very striking is that despite the general HR orientation of the book, the words related to innovation (innovation, innovator, innovate, innovative) appear up to… 220 times ! This figure highlights, according to the world’s top HR leaders, how critical HR innovation will become in the close future. Well, enough for this first entry, I finish today’s post with an inspiring quotation of the book I just mentioned:

« HR as a profession should model what we ask organization leaders and employees to do, including (…) innovation – We should focus more on what can be than what has been, which requires innovation. Innovation can and will occur in HR services, business models, and mindsets. We should look for new, creative, and pioneering solutions to business problems » (page 4).

References:

« Innovation is top business priority for first time, finds CIPD HR Outlook » (CIPD article, 2016) : http://www.cipd.co.uk/pm/peoplemanagement/b/weblog/archive/2016/02/03/innovation-is-top-business-priority-for-first-time-finds-cipd-hr-outlook.aspx

« What’s Next: Future Global Trends Affecting Your Organization » (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, SHRM Foundation, 2014).

 « The Rise of HR – wisdom from 73 thought leaders », book (HR Certification Institute, 2015) : https://www.cipd.co.uk/binaries/the-rise-of-hr-wisdom-from-73-thought-leaders_2015.pdf