Employee-driven innovations, creativity, and sustainability were key topics during research visits to Stuttgart and Nancy

This summer, as the responsible researcher for the *EDLI project, I headed to the University of Stuttgart in Germany, where a group of researchers led by Professor Alexander Brem explores phenomena related to innovations, technology, entrepreneurship, and sustainability in a changing world. The University of Stuttgart and the ENI (Institute of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Science) were familiar to me, but during this two-week visit, I gained a tremendous amount of new understanding. On the same trip, I also visited Nancy, France, where I spent a few days at ICN Business School as a guest of Professor Klaus-Peter Schulz. Schulz and his colleagues are likewise interested in innovation, creativity, and learning, so we developed collaboration ideas in Nancy as well.

*The EDLI project, carried out as part of the JATKOT group’s subproject, is funded by the Academy of Finland and examines employees’ participation in organizational innovation activities. The project explores the roles, learning processes, and practices of employees in innovation, as well as the origins and consequences of innovations with varying levels of impact. Like many projects funded by the Academy of Finland, the EDLI project also includes international mobility. The Academy’s postdoctoral researcher funding, including mobility grants, provides the opportunity to create a network to strengthen one’s expertise, develop new, international, and impactful research ideas, and eventually seek larger consortium funding to implement them.

Studying Innovations from the Perspective of Consequences

I arrived in Stuttgart with a research idea that I was eager to develop into an article together with researchers at the host university. The core of my research is to investigate the impacts of innovations in the technology sector and police work on employee-driven and internal organizational processes, and how these impacts appear from the perspective of social and human sustainability. I aimed to examine the value and consequences of innovations from new perspectives – not only through economic and technological achievements but also by focusing on the promotion of well-being and meaningfulness. In addition to the desired outcomes, it is fascinating to pay attention to the unintended or undesired consequences that innovation processes might have.

“Creative activities (such as learning or innovating) are not inherently good or bad but can be evaluated only after the consequences of the final outcome have materialized.”

Innovation research has typically focused on a single phase of the process, such as the initial idea formation or the final outcome like a product. Due to the lack of longitudinal studies, the short- and long-term consequences of innovations have rarely been described in previous research. However, I see examining the consequences as essential, especially because creative activities (such as learning or innovating) are not inherently good or bad but can be evaluated only after the consequences of the final outcome have materialized (Kampylis & Valtanen 2010). Based on the sociocultural approach, the consequences should also be examined from different positions and perspectives: what are the consequences for the individual employee? What are they for the organization? What about for society or other groups beyond the primary target groups? If sustainability and responsibility are values of innovation, a multiplicity of voices and perspectives is a necessary starting point.

My project’s data provides a good opportunity for a diverse examination of innovations and their consequences. In the EDLI project, I have collected data longitudinally. It includes descriptions, narratives, and examples from many individuals within organizations about both ongoing and completed innovation processes. In interviews, participants were also asked to evaluate development work from the perspectives of sustainability and value.

Researching the relationship between innovations and sustainability is also of interest to Professor Brem’s group. Brem himself has developed, together with a colleague, a “4-S” model (see Brem & Puente-Diaz, 2022) suitable for assessing and analyzing the sustainability of innovations, which I thought would be the right tool for analyzing my data. Thus, at the beginning of the trip, we started working on the article idea together. Through discussions, as often happens in this work, new perspectives emerged one after another, the overall scope expanded, and eventually, the entire idea began to spread into many parts. Since all the new ideas were good and none were left out, we decided to split the research first into two and eventually three parts. Thus, from one article draft, three viable concept papers were born. This is more than typical because one research article often accommodates only one very narrow perspective, as the word count guidelines for scientific articles (often 8000–10000 words) limit the breadth of examination. After the summer vacation, we will start three parallel analysis processes for different sections of the data.

Pitching Prototypes, Teaching, and Learning New Things

In addition to research, the trip included the final teaching sessions of the “AI Prototyping: From Idea to Reality” course designed for master’s and doctoral students from various study programs. The course’s idea, in short, was for students from different fields (from humanities to information technology) to come up with a solution to a given problem provided by a company using creative group work methods and develop an idea for an application or other final product related to the topic.

At the end of the course, students had to pitch their developed prototypes in interdisciplinary groups at an open innovation event. During the final teaching sessions, I was involved in commenting on ideas and finished prototypes, as well as guiding students in presenting their prototypes with the course instructors. The pitches were practiced in front of student colleagues the day before the actual presentation, giving everyone the opportunity to receive feedback and tips on both presentation skills and structure from listeners and instructors. The actual presentation day was naturally a nerve-wracking experience for the students, but it went excellently. The area around the stage was filled with business people interested in the students’ ideas! This teaching experience also provided ideas for using creative methods in my own teaching when I return to more teaching work at my home university after my research leave.

In addition to the innovation event, during my stay in Stuttgart, several other events related to my research were organized at the university (e.g., an open house/science day) and elsewhere, which I had the opportunity to attend. I particularly remember the Start-up Autobahn Expo, where staff from Bosch, Mercedes-Benz, and similar companies discussed topics currently relevant in innovation work. AI, sustainability, open innovations, and cross-organizational collaboration were the main themes in these talks.

Legos and Fully Booked Days

After two weeks in Stuttgart, I escaped the European Football Championship to France. My intention was to make a shorter first visit of a couple of days to ICN Creactive Business School in Nancy, to get acquainted with the school’s activities, staff, and research areas. ICN is also known for implementing creative methods, especially Lego workshops. Legos were a visible part of the brand, and they have long been used at ICN both as part of student interaction and in innovation work. The modern and pedagogically interesting teaching spaces, adaptable to various situations, seemed to offer an inspiring environment for using Legos to form new ideas and perspectives.

The days in Nancy were fully booked because the visit was short and there were many people. Various meetings followed one another. Fortunately, in the French style, meetings were also arranged over meals, so I got fuel for my overworking brain. Ideas for joint projects, teaching collaborations, and research publications came up more than can practically be implemented. The point of getting to know new people is not to put all ideas into practice immediately but rather to gain a broad and deep understanding of different research interests and then over time consider where there might be a common interface with one’s work and research. All in all, an efficient, albeit demanding visit towards the end of the trip. Nancy was a beautiful and peaceful city – as a former cook, I also enjoyed trying a few famous French desserts.

Leisure Time and Genuine Collaboration

Business trips always offer an opportunity to learn new things outside of work. One is not working all the time, even abroad, and free time must be arranged to allow the brain to absorb new information and maintain continuous social interaction in a foreign language. This time, the tourist portion of the trip was concentrated in the first week, with family members joining me to visit Stuttgart Zoo, the Porsche Museum, the TV Tower, and an outdoor pool. After they returned home, I visited the Cologne Cathedral, the world’s tallest church tower in Ulm, the sad streets of Frankfurt, and the beautiful square in Nancy.

Evenings extended long into the night with colleagues and their friends, discussing German and Finnish culture, politics, the meaning of life, and human existence, choir rehearsals, and mini Oktoberfests. It is easy to think of work as just work and research as a process, but in reality, the best ideas and highest-quality outputs are born in ordinary, more relaxed encounters – and genuine collaboration in deeper human relationships.

Soila Lemmetty, Leader of the JATKOT Group and Postdoctoral Researcher (EDLI Project)