Researchers call for the design of HR practices that identify proactive and innovative talent

Associate Professor Yuliani Suseno, Faculty of Business and Law, University of Newcastle (formerly based at Edith Cowan University).

Associate Professor Denise Gengatharen, School of Business and Law and Dr Diep Nguyen, School of Business and Law, Edith Cowan University.

The work of a team of researchers from Edith Cowan University on innovative work behaviour in the public sector has been published in the March 2020 Issue of the Australian Journal of Public Administration.

Successive Australian governments have placed a high importance on innovation since the mid-2000s. However, the majority of research on organisational innovation is from the United States and Europe (see, for instance, the work of Anderson, Potočnik and Zhou, 2014). This new research by Dr Yuliani Suseno, Professor Craig Standing, Associate Professor Denise Gengatharen and Dr Diep Nguyen from the School of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University, helps correct this imbalance through the study of a large Australian public sector organisation.

What is innovative work behaviour?

Innovation work behaviour has been defined as the ‘behaviour directed towards the initiation and application… of new and useful ideas, processes, products or procedures’ (see De Jong and Den Hartog, 2007).

It has further been described by Scott and Bruce (1994) as a three-stage process:

  1. an individual employee comes up with creative ideas and solutions after a problem or issue has been identified
  2. the employee mobilises support for their innovative ideas and elicits other employees’ enthusiasm about the ideas and solutions
  3. the idea is transformed into a model, a prototype, or a useful application for the individual’s work role, group or the organisation.

Understanding innovative work behaviour

Previous research has indicated at least three variables support innovative work behaviour in an organisation: task characteristics, proactive personality and social support.

Task characteristics in work design play an important role in employees’ motivation to be innovative. Noefer, Stegmaier, Molter and Sonntag suggested in 2009 that when work is designed with high task and skill variety employees’ creativity is enhanced because the task provides them with a high degree of freedom to develop and assess new ideas. This followed Grant’s 2008 observation that work which has been designed with high task significance is also more likely to motivate the employee as they realise the impact their work has on others.

Proactive personality is a trait predicting high performance and positive helping behaviour (Greguras and Diefendorff 2010). Employees with a proactive personality are likely to have a high level of job performance because of their desire to continuously improve by acquiring new knowledge and skills (Fuller and Marler 2009). And they tend to be more persistent in overcoming barriers in order to bring about change and achieve goals (Belschak and Den Hartog 2010).

Social support is an important element of today’s work environment. Employees who enjoy favourable internal social support from team members will have better chances of implementing their ideas (Hammond, Neff, Farr, Schwall and Zhao 2011). A supportive work atmosphere is conducive to innovation (for example, Hülsheger, Anderson and Salgado 2009). And social networks inside a firm, between firms and outside a firm facilitate innovation, enabling employees to gather resources and learn about new ideas and perspectives, which may facilitate innovative work behaviour (Leenders and Dolfsma 2016).

What did the researchers test?

The researchers tested five hypotheses:

  1. Task characteristics are positively associated with innovative work behaviour
  2. Proactive personality is positively associated with innovative work behaviour
  3. Proactive personality will moderate the relationship between task characteristics and innovative work behaviour
  4. Social support is positively associated with innovative work behaviour
  5. Social support moderates the relationship between task characteristics and innovative work behaviour.

How did they test their hypotheses?

Employees from a public sector organisation in one Australian state were invited to participate in the study by completing a survey. Participants did so anonymously and all individual responses were treated with complete confidentiality.

Gender, age, education and tenure were controlled for as part of the survey design.

The response rate was 23% (from a total workforce of approximately 800 employees). Due to missing answers to some questions, only 154 responses of the 186 questionnaires completed could be used for statistical analysis.

What did they find?

The first hypothesis — that task characteristics are positively associated with innovative work behaviour — was supported.

Employees doing tasks that enable them to experience a different set of skills and activities tend to be more innovative as they are exposed to doing a variety of things.

Employees whose jobs enable them to complete the tasks from start to finish will feel a higher ownership of tasks and are more likely to be innovative.

Employees who believe the tasks they do can have a significant impact on others would feel encouraged to come up with different ideas to continue making an impact on others.

And employees who receive feedback will feel personally accountable for the results of their work.

The second hypothesis — that proactive personality is positively associated with innovative work behaviour — was supported.

The third hypothesis — that proactive personality will moderate the relationship between task characteristics and innovative work behaviour — was supported.

The fourth hypothesis — that social support is positively associated with innovative work behaviour — was supported.

But the fifth hypothesis — that social support moderates the relationship between task characteristics and innovative work behaviour — was not supported.

Practical implications

The role of task characteristics in an organisation’s innovative capability is something that managers need to consider.

Tasks should be designed so that they involve a variety of challenges and a range of skills and knowledge areas, and where feasible require a person to be involved in doing the task from start to finish. This approach will have the benefits of developing the employee’s skills and knowledge, engendering a sense of ownership and accountability in the process.

Tasks also need to be designed to have a higher task significance because the impact the task can have on others can encourage exploratory thinking and experimentation for innovative outcomes.

Regular and constructive feedback is also important as this has an effect on the employee’s innovative work behaviour. This is particularly needed in the public sector which has been historically characterised by hierarchical structures and bureaucracy.

Another consideration is the value of social support.

Managers should design work around opportunities for employees to collaborate and problem solve in teams within the organisation and across functional lines.

Employees should also be exposed to outside influences like attendance at trade fairs, conferences, and be sponsored as members of trade and business organisations.

Organisations could also use some employees as boundary spanners who could bring in intelligence from the outside. This is particularly important in the public sector as it seeks to become more corporate-like in the delivery of its services.

There is also a need for training in communication, team working, and leadership skills that underpin the social aspects of innovation, as government departments seek to rationalise and streamline services across different agencies.

And a third consideration relates to proactive personality.

The findings highlight the need to design human resources practices that better identify proactive and innovative job applicants in the recruitment and selection process.

Moreover, employee’s proactive personality can be shaped through work structures and work climates to promote one’s confidence and desire to make changes (see Parker and Zhang, 2016).

Where to next?

Innovation is critical for public sector organisations. This team of academics suggest that further research can provide further evidence on how to nurture innovative work behaviour to bring about significant improvements to public sector administration as well as service provision.

Accessing the research paper

IPAA members can access the entire back catalogue of the Australian Journal of Public Administration as part of their member benefits.

The paper referenced in this feature — Innovative work behaviour in the public sector: The roles of task characteristics, social support, and proactivity — can also be accessed free of charge by the wider public sector community until the 31 May 2020.


Since the paper was submitted for publication, Associate Professor Yuliani Suseno has taken on a new role as Assistant Dean Research Training at The University of Newcastle’s Faculty of Business and Law.