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Managing and Retaining Innovators

May 24, 2017

Organizational leaders of scientists and engineers are faced with a common challenge: How can leaders best manage commitment among these innovators?

Department of Management professors Sara Perry, an assistant professor, and Emily Hunter, an associate professor, along with Steven C. Currall, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Southern Methodist University, decided to look into the issue.

Through their research, they found the relationship between organizational and professional commitment was positively related. Those relationships were moderated by two factors: organizational productivity in late-stage technology transfer (i.e., licenses, industry standards, jobs created) and the researcher's perceived role significance.

"Organizational and professional commitment are not necessarily incompatible among these innovative professionals, as sometimes thought. Instead, we found a positive association between them, meaning leaders may be able to foster both at the same time," said Perry.

"Managing the Innovators: Organizational and Professional Commitment among Scientists and Engineers," which was published in Research Policy in 2016, investigated the relationship between innovators and their commitment to their profession and organization.

Their research included data from 255 scientists and engineers working in 22 National Science Foundation-funded engineering research centers, which are hybrid, research-focused organizations comprised of universities, industry and governmental partners.

They found the strongest positive relationship between innovative orientation and organizational commitment among researchers who worked in highly productive organizations (in terms of late-stage technology transfer) and who also felt they had significance in their organizations.

"We found that highly innovative scientists and engineers may be most committed to work in organizations that make a larger impact outside the research laboratory, especially when those individuals understand their own significant role in that impact," said Perry.

Their analysis also revealed highly innovative, more senior researchers (associate and full professors) who perceived high role significance were the most likely to report higher levels of both organizational and professional commitment.

"Even when success is not imminent or highly visible, organizational leaders may be able to simulate these conditions by emphasizing small wins and communicating the less visible ways the organization is making an impact—all while also emphasizing each individual's important role in that work," said Perry.

Those in leadership roles are in an interesting position to motivate these unique individuals in their organization and their field.

"Leaders may be behooved to try to find synergy between professional and organizational commitment, since there are important advantages to both. Perhaps by emphasizing a sense of belonging and impact to the organization while also supporting involvement within the broader profession," said Perry.

Although it is said that innovative individuals are not likely to be very loyal to their organization because of rules, bureaucracy and structure, the researchers believe leaders can help retain these individuals.

"We suggest that leaders should protect employees, especially the most innovative ones, from some of those institutional obstacles to help improve their loyalty to the organization," said Perry. "It might even need to come in the form of encouraging and protecting creative behaviors that researchers need to exhibit to be truly innovative, but that the traditional organizational structures might not allow."

The research conducted is a step toward helping leaders not only understand innovators, but to help foster a work environment that is beneficial to all parties.

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