Pushing Boundaries: the human dimension in innovation

Customs officers Josje van der Tonnekreek and Silvana Engelhard on the ‘soft side of innovation’. “It is key that our employees adopt change and actively contribute to it.”

Data and technology are crucial components of Dutch Customs’ vision for the future. While striving for far-reaching automation of goods monitoring, linked to highly sophisticated data management, Dutch Customs thoroughly realises that the use of increasingly smart technology alone is not a guarantee for success. The success of innovation also hinges on the employees who will be using these new technologies. They are basically going to have to embrace innovation. Social innovation as a success factor will, therefore, be a major focus point across the organisation. Josje van der Tonnekreek (pictured on the left) and Silvana Engelhard know all there is to know about the ‘soft side of innovation’.

“When it comes to innovation, our organisation has a reputation to uphold,” says Engelhard, member of Dutch Customs’ Innovation Coordination Group. “We keep a close eye on social and technological trends that could potentially affect our core duties, looking primarily at whether they could make our jobs more efficient and effective, and, equally importantly, more fun. We never shy away from pioneering new technologies, working methods, and forms of collaboration, some of which are subsequently actually implemented in our regular processes. Thanks to this approach, we are seen as a leading pioneer in the international customs community. With respect to our innovation capacity, we are, however, not short of self-criticism. New developments and products are not always implemented as smoothly and naturally as we – and our stakeholders – would like. This is partly because our people are not all equally committed and open to it – in the sense that they actively contribute to it through their mindset and actions. We, as the Innovation Coordination Group, do have the ambition and are working hard to create such an internal climate. Over the coming twenty years, there will be a lot of changes in our immediate environment. Developments such as autodetection incorporated into goods and information flows, artificial intelligence, and robotisation will have major impact. And we want to get everyone engaged on these developments from an early stage. The thing is to get employees to adopt change.”

Interwoven worlds
“A curious, inquisitive, innovative mindset is not really anchored in our DNA yet,” fellow Innovation Coordination Group member Van Der Tonnekreek adds. “We are traditionally an organisation of doers, people who roll up their sleeves. That’s great, but the time has come to draw more on our brainpower, our creativity. We are going to have to be more active and think bigger in our response to possibilities that are arising in the world around us, and reflect on them. How could these possibilities contribute to the way in which we organise our core business? What impact do they have on customers? Take blockchain, for example. There is no need to rashly come up with all kinds of uses for it ourselves. But it will, however, be useful or even necessary to explore, seriously and within a broader context, how blockchain could affect us and our stakeholders. Our brief as the Innovation Coordination Group is to get customs staff to move in that direction.”

“What is very important in this context is the recognition that innovation and the world of law enforcement and inspection are of equal value and not separated from each other,” Van Der Tonnekreek continues. “One is not more important than the other. There are no two sides, the two should be interwoven. Innovation is not something you do alongside your normal operations. It should ideally take place within your primary processes. After all, it is in our everyday operational reality where employees come up against things where improvements are needed, and where it becomes clear what customers need. And so, this is where the most promising ideas arise. For that reason alone, you should not consider innovation as the exclusive preserve of a small group of innovators working in isolation. At Dutch Customs, however, we have not gotten to the stage yet where innovation and operations are inextricably interlinked. This is a bridge that we have not finished building yet.”

A matter of perseverance
Achieving a closer link between the two worlds is also needed for other reasons, according to Engelhard. “Individual employees on the operational side need to experience the urgency of innovation to a greater degree. We cannot continue to work the way we have always worked. To keep growing cross-border flows of goods under control, we are going to have to find – potentially drastic – solutions together. And in doing so, we welcome input from anyone. As soon as people start to feel the urgency, they will be more inclined to embrace the changes that are inevitable in the long run. The whole transition process we have in mind hinges on broad support from across the workforce. Today, innovation still meets with resistance from many. It is often seen as something that is imposed from outside the organisation or by the higher echelons of the organisation. Or it is seen as a threat, something that will sooner or later lead to job losses. This is a misconception. New methods and technologies will not take over our jobs, but make them more effective, easier, and more pleasant. We will all reap the benefits of that. And these benefits extend to well beyond the boundaries of our organisation.”

“Plus, innovation is also about implementation,” Engelhard continues. “As the Innovation Coordination Group, we have launched numerous pilot projects, experimenting in a relatively free setting with concepts that we consider to have potential. As soon as we are convinced that an innovation adds value, the next logical step is to start using it in our day-to-day practices. But this step is quite a bit more difficult than the preceding one. It involves all kinds of factors, such as the human and financial resources that will be needed to implement the innovation. Are we going to develop and implement it ourselves from A to Z, or do we outsource it to an external party? What is the regulatory context within which we have to operate? These things can make the whole process rather tough going, which, in turn, potentially leads to impatience and disappointment. Whenever we manage to get more commitment from across the workforce during the implementation phase, we are better able to manage expectations and keep up energy levels for the efforts needed. These kinds of processes require perseverance, which is yet another reason why it is important to bring innovation and the traditional organisation closer together, and preferably even integrate them.”

Beyond the here and now
“Traditionally, Dutch Customs has been focused mainly on output,” says Van Der Tonnekreek. “We look mainly at our production, figures, results… The targets – such as the number of checks – we have to hit; these are the things on which we judge and are judged. This in itself is fine, but it would be even better if we could get this tight focus on the ‘what’ to shift somewhat towards the ‘how’: are there other, easier ways to achieve our business objectives? It is great to see that these kinds of things are more and more widely discussed across the organisation. In our regular accountability report, for example, members of our leadership are asked how they invest in employee development, in terms of attitude and conduct. Do you let them take responsibility, do you offer them freedom to work out their own ideas, do you promote autonomy and creativity? Are you willing to relinquish control, trusting employees to produce great things thanks to the free rein you allow them? Yes, this is indeed about leadership. Inspiring leaders help us step out of our daily routines, and look beyond the here and now. That is precisely what we need over the coming years.”

Engelhard and Van Der Tonnekreek have an optimistic outlook for the future. “There is fertile breeding ground for innovation at Dutch Customs,” the latter points out. “We are already doing a lot in terms of management development, as well as when it comes to lean management and continuous improvement. We, as the Innovation Coordination Group, can tie in with these kinds of activities. The importance of the human factor is, as you can see, increasingly taken into account. There is a growing realisation that we cannot manage innovation based only on hard factors. Social innovation is about what drives people, how they act, and how you can influence that. It is not something you can measure, which is why it is generally considered something that is soft and implicit. That said, you can still make it an explicit management focus and name specific effects you want to achieve through it. At Dutch Customs, we are currently in the process of discovering all kinds of things in this respect. Because we know that technological innovation will not succeed without social innovation.”

The role of the Innovation Coordination Group
Innovation does not happen automatically, it is a process that needs to be organised and managed. Based on this given, Dutch Customs has set up the Innovation Coordination Group. Besides Engelhard and Van Der Tonnekreek, several other professionals from different fields are also part of the group. Together, they look at innovative ideas that emerge from within the organisation. Does it fit within the organisation’s vision and strategy? What does it help us achieve? What do we need to make it a success? Who could take it to the next level? Whenever the Innovation Coordination Group sees potential in an idea, they advise the Information Management Steering Group to trial the idea in a test environment.

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