Understanding of employee innovation is outdated

Do you feel that you are not good at innovating in the workplace? According to Maria Pajuoja's dissertation, the reason for the feeling might be the prevailing perception of what individuals do when they innovate is too one-sided.

– It’s common to talk about innovation as synonymous with developing a good solution to a problem at work. But individual innovation is more than coming up with a good idea. According to my research, there are several stages in the innovation process, all of which are important for innovation to occur, says Maria Pajuoja, who will defend her dissertation at the University of Vaasa on September 2.

Pajuoja dusts off outdated notions about the role of the individual in the innovation process. In addition to ideators, organisations also need employees who see what can and should be innovated, who have the knowledge to create a scope for the solution, and who have the ability to question familiar operating models. 

Innovation starts with a problem

Innovation starts with an employee, who notices a problem that needs or is worth solving. 

– It is not self-evident that this will happen. If an employee, for example, does not care about the success of the organisation or if they believe that pointing out problems labels them as a problematic employee, they might choose to stay silent. Organisations that want to promote innovation, should encourage employees to bring up innovation opportunities, Pajuoja states. .

Without obligations and together: coffee breaks foster innovation 

According to Pajuoja's research, finding a solution is often a social process in which coffee breaks play a central role. 

– It's quite funny how often the interviewees mentioned coffee breaks as innovative. You get a chance to bounce ideas around with like-minded people without obligations, Pajuoja says. 

There are often a lot of constraints to suitable solutions: costs, size, or even legal constraints can impact the solution chosen. Managing these constraints is also an essential part of the innovation process. 

– An employee who knows which constraints are definite and where you can be flexible, will find the best solution. Organisations need to be aware that employees like this are also crucial in the innovation process, which requires different capabilities than coming up with a good idea, Pajuoja points out. 

Maria Pajuoja will publicly defend her doctoral dissertation on Friday, September 2, 2022, at the University of Vaasa.

Employees know how they innovate best 

In her dissertation, Pajuoja also studied which factors influence what and how often an individual innovates. Managerial coaching positively affects innovation but external factors are not the only factors influencing an individual. 

–  It became clear during the interviews that people are very aware of how they can best maintain their innovation capability. When asked what influences it, only a few mentioned their managers or organisational practices; most talked about what they do themselves. Four ways to do this emerged in my research: keeping up to date with the latest information in the field, creating and maintaining a social network, active observation of the environment, and believing in your ability to innovate, says Pajuoja. 

According to Pajuoja, organisations should support the individuals' innovative capabilities, for example, by providing opportunities to network, by visualising the steps in the innovative process and by encouraging innovative activities.  

In her dissertation, From mechanistic measuring to up-to-date understanding: Problematising the study of innovative work behaviour, Pajuoja has used both quantitative and qualitative methods. The data collected for the dissertation consist of 4,418 responses from employees in the SME sector, 255 research articles on the topic, and 34 research interviews conducted in a multinational corporation.

Doctoral dissertation

Pajuoja, Maria (2022) From mechanistic measuring to up-to-date understanding: Problematising the study of innovative work behaviour. Acta Wasaensia 489. Doctoral dissertation. University of Vaasa.

Public defence

The public examination of MA Maria Pajuoja’s doctoral dissertation will be held on Friday 2 September 2022 at noon at the University of Vaasa. Associate Professor Timothy Bednall (Swinburne University of Technology) will act as an opponent and Professor Riitta Viitala as a custos.


More information

Maria Pajuoja obtained a master's degree in English language and culture in 2014 from the University of Turku. In addition, she is an innovation coach certified by the International Coaching Federation.   

Before transitioning to an academic career, Pajuoja worked in multinational corporations; in 2006–2011, as an operations manager at Google Ireland, and in 2001–2005 as the manager for key account managers and the complaints department at UPS Sweden. Currently, she works as a university teacher at the University of Vaasa.

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