A Systems Approach to Employee Creativity

TAKEUCHI, Riki | JIA, Liangding | CHANG, Song | CAI, Yahua

Creativity is a major contributor to organisational innovation and competitiveness. A lot is already understood about the factors that promote creativity, such as individual motivation and personality, and firm leadership and practices. But one glaring area that has not been fully addressed is how firms can use strategic human resources management systems to promote creativity.

These systems create the conditions of interaction between employees and organisations, and therefore the context for creativity to arise. In recognition of that, Song Chang, Liangding Jia, Riki Takeuchi and Yahua Cai have sought to investigate that role and fill this knowledge void.

They focus on high-commitment work systems (HCWS) that signal a firm’s commitment to its employees – things like extensive training, and rewards and incentives such as stock option plans.

“By offering HCWS, we believe firms create situations that enhance employees’ task motivation, domain-relevant skills and creativity-relevant skills. As a result, their individual levels of creativity are improved,” they said.

HCWS also include practices related to training, rewards, job rotation, which encourages employees’ to build up knowledge relevant to the organisation, and egalitarian management, which helps employees to feel greater psychological safety. These practices affect team cohesion – an important factor because teams are the actual places where individual creativity arises.

“When team members are encouraged by HCWS to learn new knowledge, information and skills, teams with higher cohesion may benefit more because of the resultant higher perceived competence and self-determination, more intensive communication, less personal conflict, and more team learning and intrateam knowledge sharing.”  

“Without support from HCWS, such as the promotion of egalitarian culture, cohesive teams may be more easily subject to the groupthink symptom because team members may be less likely to suggest creative yet risky ideas and more likely to conform to team opinions.”

The effects of team cohesion and HCWS become even stronger when the task at hand is complex. “When tasks are challenging and demanding and companies invest heavily in HCWS, such as training and socialisation opportunities for employees to share their problems and concerns, then employee creativity will be optimised. Moreover, employees will be more likely to have the necessary opportunities to engage in knowledge sharing and knowledge combination, which also lead to creative outcomes.”

These ideas were tested in 238 core-knowledge teams from 55 high-tech teams in Mainland China, involving 1,059 employees. HR executives rated their firm’s HCWS; team supervisors reported on team cohesion, complexity and openness to experience, and later team creativity; and individual employees reported their openness to experience and personality and demographic information.

The results all upheld the authors’ arguments and have impacts for managers in terms of when and where to invest in HCWS.

“Investment in HCWS is costly so companies need to be aware when such investment will have higher or lower payoffs. In particular, when team cohesion is low and tasks are simple, organisations should be more careful about making such costly investment decisions. By contrast, when team cohesion is high and team tasks complex, such investment should be generally applied,” they said.


Adjunct Professor