Scotland & the EU Scotland's Economy

Art in the Workplace: A Driver of Innovation

Written by Rhona Middler

Article by Emeritus Professor John Bratton

This article is based on a chapter ‘Art at Work: culture-Based learning and the Economic Development of Canadian Small Cities’, in The Small Cities Book, edited by W.F. Garrett-Petts.


As I exercised on the cross-training machine in the gym this morning, an upbeat track of music blasted from the gym’s speakers. I found myself striding the machine faster. It was a reminder of how art, in this case music, can affect individual performance. Generally, art and culture are associated with city life; inside the workplace they’re rarely given a second thought. But whether we recognize it or not, art is integral to our workplaces: think of the music that permeates retail and commercial spaces; the “motivational art” that graces our office lobbies and boardrooms – e.g., a print of a ‘team’ rowing in unison – and even the use of drama as a teaching tool, as in analyzing classical Shakespearian characters to teach exemplary leadership competencies.

A critical mass of cultural amenities is often cited as a powerful magnet to attract newcomers and entrepreneurs to a community. But with so much talk about sustainability, indebtedness, our aging workforce and poor productivity performance, I believe art is equally important for its role in innovation, the key source to productivity growth. When assessing business priorities, art should be placed right alongside R&D and public investment in science, technology and education.

Some managers have acknowledged the importance of what’s often referred to as “strategic learning” as a way to encourage organizational change. This strategy relates to “people processes” that increase an organization’s ability to innovate. Theodore Levitt, the late American economist said, creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things. It’s not enough to have creative employees. New ideas have to attract investment to be turned into new things or serives. Thus, the innovation process involves not only generating new ideas but also matching up idea generators with sponsors or investors who can translate those creative ideas into new things. The research on the cultural future of small cities undertaken in western Canada was predicated on the belief that art and embedded artists greatly improve the odds of ‘”match-ups” between idea generators and sponsors.

Innovative thinkers have certain psychological attributes, including irreverence for the status quo and willingness to take risks. Idea generators often are newcomers to the company, are dissatisfied with the way things are, and have less to lose by changing the status quo. The arts provide fertile conditions for developing and validating new ideas or, to use that cliché, thinking outside of the box, step one in the innovation process. The arts-innovation paradigm celebrates the innovative potential of artistic deviance. Artists are risk-takers and generally they are less afraid of chaos than the rest of us.

Artistic intervention enhances the capacity for engagement in informal learning that can provide a supportive framework to foster innovation. Artistic deviance and creativity, added to the more traditional building block of innovation, can help ignite new ideas by challenging or disrupting established community of practices or work routines. Work-related informal learning can be understood as a process of reciprocal transformation between an employee’s or group’s image of the status quo and interlocking levels of authority. A two-way process in which, for example, a project team acquires new ideas through experience and critical reflection of current ways of doing. Creativity and innovation is associated with questioning or transforming ‘taken-for-granted’ ideas and operational practices of the company. And it can be nurtured by designing jobs in ways that empowers and effectively utilizes skills of their employees and allows group dialogue for learning to occur.

So, how can Scottish business leaders leverage the creative potential of art and artists in order to improve innovation and productivity? Recognizing art’s role in innovation means harnessing employees’ assets through a range of practices: empowered project teams, communities of practice, cognitive apprenticeships, meaningful engagement of employees in the design and implementation of new initiatives and informal learning.

While innovation is often associated with ingenious individuals diligently working to create a new product or process or service, most innovations are in fact built upon the cumulative knowledge and practices undertaken by groups. If we use only creative individuals as the lens for understanding innovation, then we get a very restrictive view of the process. A more inclusive view of the innovation phenomenon is to consider the context.

We need to reposition discussion of innovation, moving from the narrow notion of innovation as something to be imported, to innovation as a potential workplace asset to be developed. We should pay attention to leadership and HR practices that draw out employees’ creativity in and through the arts. Inviting an artist to join a project team designing a new product or service can add value to the collaborative process. We also need a more specific focus on line managers who encourage informal learning, foster new ideas and sponsor their subordinates’ creative thinking.

Given the economic challenges facing us in this post-Brexit world, it’s time that business leaders recognized that art and artists in the workplace can strengthen innovation and, in turn improve individual and organizational performance.



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About the author

Rhona Middler

Rhona was Business for Scotland's Engagement Executive and Events Manager.

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