Academic journal article Innovation: Organization & Management

Dreams of Silence: Employee Voice and Innovation in a Public Sector Community of Practice

Academic journal article Innovation: Organization & Management

Dreams of Silence: Employee Voice and Innovation in a Public Sector Community of Practice

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In public organizations, the innovation process is generally considered very slow and commonly a failed experience. This bad outcome does not only depend on risk aversion of bureaucracies, political judgments and organizational inertia, but also on the decisions of employees to be silent about the opportunities that innovation offers. Silence is a typical risk in public services that want to introduce innovation and that contribute to the definition of risk aversion in the public sector. It can become a defensive strategy for employees when an organization with an aggressive style and/or stable culture decides to assume the risk of innovation. Whether the public sector does not know the expected reactions of its workers (lack of environmental scanning), it is exposed to the 'failure of invariance' (Kahneman and Tversky 2000) and increases uncertainty in forthcoming innovations. Normally, public management is more risk-averse than private management because they have to take into account political judgment and the perceived quality of the service besides the mission of a more efficient organization (Albury 2005, Bhatta 2003). Moreover, we have to bear in mind that in a system governed by accountability, innovation and efficiency do not go in the same direction. Efficiency is a short-term goal easily attainable in a stable economic growth context that contributes to stability through productivity increases of known labour practices. On the contrary, innovation requires a longer time span, and it is endogenous to economic and policy evolution; it is the response to new consumer needs and it creates new services. Adapted to changing contexts, it produces uncertainty and moves away from organizational solutions, easily achieving the goal of efficiency by accountability (Potts 2009, Walker 2003). This means that when an organization focuses on efficiency by accountability, we observe a trade-off in the sense that 'the goal of efficiency "crowds out" the goal of innovation', and an innovation deficit results as a by-product of efficiency (Potts 2009: 36). We propose to translate this statement in terms of silence/voice, claiming that the efficiency goal can discourage employee participation in the renewal of the problem-solving process, thus jeopardizing the outcome of organizational innovation. Whether we agree that an innovation deficit cannot be the only outcome of efficiency, but also of silence, because new ideas, capabilities and knowledge sharing do not have a suitable organizational climate, we need to investigate more deeply those organizational behaviours that threaten the inner learning processes, discourage experimentation and decrease the appetite for innovation risk.

We know that learning is a basic ingredient in organizations' performance because it allows adaptation to changing environments by selecting the best responses among those acquired by experience (Becker et al. 2005, Argyris and Schön 1978). But we also know that experience itself represents the firm's tacit knowledge, and it has to be shared and explicitly transmitted via communication channels to become a part of the firm's dynamic capabilities (Loasby 1994, Dosi et al. 2000). Organizational learning, which is considered a collective action, requires an organizational climate, seen here as intensity of the voice, in order to innovate routines and produce new services. Knowledge sharing by voice is a strategy to relocate knowledge from the lower tacit individual level to the higher tacit firm level, and it requires a revision of both the cognitive division of labour and problemsolving procedures in order to be implemented (Nonaka 1994). Nevertheless, voice can be difficult to manage as a strategic tool when the organization is based on a vertical division of labour with many scattered, usually disconnected, decision centres. Voice can activate an empowerment process undesired by the management and stimulate a feedback relationship between workers and management that can threaten organizational governance. …

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