Communicate to innovate

Posted on 13 Mar 2015 by Victoria Fitzgerald

Peter Burman, president of EF Corporate Solutions, reveals why he thinks communication is the key to innovation in manufacturing.


Rapid advances in technology are helping many manufacturers to stay competitive in the global marketplace, but there’s a much more fundamental, lower-tech way in which companies can gain an edge. It turns out that improving employees’ communication skills can help organisations boost growth and innovation.

Peter Burman, president of EF Corporate Solutions.
Peter Burman, president of EF Corporate Solutions.

That’s what EF discovered recently through research conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The research, summarised in a report titled, The innovative company: How multinationals unleash their creative potential, found that many firms are not reaping the most from their investments in innovation because their employees lack the necessary skills and confidence in communication.

Without the ability to effectively communicate ideas with others, especially with colleagues in other departments and countries, people can’t be as creative and innovative as their companies might like, the EIU report concluded. The study surveyed 350 global organisations, including 35 major manufacturing firms, half of which have annual revenues of more than $1bn.

Cross-cultural and creative hurdles

How does a lack of communication skills affect a company’s ability to innovate?

One, it hampers collaboration among employees in different countries, something that is absolutely vital when so many large organisations operate numerous office locations around the world. Staying on the same page and achieving common goals is already challenging enough for multinationals whose people are separated by miles, time zones and cultures. If they can’t all speak the same language, those challenges become far more difficult.

87 % of those responding to the EIU study agreed that “cross-cultural collaboration produces innovative ideas”. However, a full 50% also said that “cross-cultural differences make it harder to share ideas with colleagues”.

Two, employees who don’t feel confident in their communication abilities are less likely to speak up and suggest new ideas, no matter how good those ideas might be. Every time this happens, a company loses a potential opportunity, whether that’s for a new product or service, a new way of doing business, or a new approach toward managing operations and costs.

When asked what was the most important factor for innovation, the number-one response in the EIU study was a “culture that encourages new ideas from everyone”. However, one-fifth of respondents – including CEOs – said that “at some point they have been too afraid to communicate an idea to colleagues”.

Clearly, improving communication skills and fostering a work culture where people feel comfortable to offer their ideas would help reduce these barriers to innovation.

Invest in education, tolerate failure

Among the top priorities for the manufacturing firms surveyed by the EIU were creating new products and services (45.7%), cutting costs (40%), increasing market share (37.1%) and improving existing products and services (37.1%). In particular, developing new offerings and markets requires fresh thinking, collaboration and innovation … so improving communication skills and promoting a creative environment promise real and tangible benefits to companies’ bottom lines.