Motivated to Innovate

R&D employees who find intellectual challenge motivating tend to be more productive.

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Courtesy of IBM.

Looking to spark innovation in your R&D work force? Look for employees who are motivated by intellectual challenge—but not by job security. Henry Sauermann, an assistant professor of strategic management at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Wesley M. Cohen, the Frederick C. Joerg Professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, analyzed survey data from a sample of more than 11,000 scientists and engineers in a variety of industries. Sauermann and Cohen reported their results in an October 2008 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper titled “What Makes Them Tick? Employee Motives and Firm Innovation.”

One of the topics the survey covered was the importance the scientists and engineers placed on eight different types of work benefits (salary, fringe benefits, job security, intellectual challenge, independence, opportunities for advancement, responsibility and contribution to society). One key finding: Among the survey respondents, rating intellectual challenge as a very important aspect of a job was associated with spending more hours at work and with producing more patent applications for a given effort level. In contrast, those who said that job security was important to them tended to have lower-than-expected patent applications.

Sauermann and Cohen offer several possible explanations for the relationships they found between motives and productivity. For example, having a preference for challenge may lead scientists and engineers to select potentially more demanding and innovative projects. Another possibility: The nature of employees’ underlying motivation may affect cognitive processes such as creative thinking—with “intrinsic” motives such as intellectual challenge having positive effects, while a concern about security may stifle the exploration of new ideas. However, Sauermann and Cohen indicate that, while those are possible explanations, the causes of their findings were not clear from this study. They are currently conducting related research aimed at understanding the causes of the relationships they observed between motives and productivity.

“What Makes Them Tick? Employee Motives and Firm Innovation” is available for $5 via electronic download from the National Bureau of Economic Research and Social Science Research Network web sites.

—Martha E.


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