Coming up with an idea is easy. The marketing is the hard part.
The ability to think differently; to dare ask questions: why? how come? Isn’t there a different way? People who are innovative and retain stricter; people who are headstrong but remain social – you need those types of people in your team to put innovation on the agenda of a traditional health provider like Arbo Unie. Or as CEO at Arbo Unie, Wim Schimmel, describes the business development team – ‘a team full of harmony and spark’. Working together, Arbo Unie professionals and their clients managed to develop seven innovative projects within a year — three of which have now successfully marketed.
How did Arbo Unie develop its business development team and where did the initiators find the right team members? In a nutshell, how does an idea born within Arbo Unie ultimately become a successful product or service? And why would you invest so much time and effort on stimulating innovation? We reconstruct the path to successful innovation.
Arbo Unie is one of the largest occupational health and safety providers in the Netherlands. The company is wholly owned by the non-profit group, Stichting Arbo Unie Netherlands, and has been active for years in preventing ill health among workers in the Netherlands.
In 2013, 530 companies worked in occupational health counselling and reintegration in the Netherlands, according to the latest figures from Statistics Netherlands. The market is expanding and the number of companies in this industry has increased by almost 20 per cent since 2009.
In recent years, Arbo Unie has supported workers who are not able to work due to illness. But according to CEO Wim Schimmel, this is changing. ‘Only four per cent of Dutch employees are ill,’ says Schimmel. ‘From that perspective, it makes more sense to focus on the ninety-six percent of employees who are still healthy and to ensure that they do not also become ill.’
To connect with this large group of (still) healthy workers, it is necessary to develop innovative services, according to Schimmel. ‘These days, workers want to make a doctor’s appointment online. Until recently, this was not possible at all in this sector. And employees with a smartphone with sensors or a wrist ‘activity tracker’ can measure all sorts of things about their health. In addition, they want to invest in their own productivity and health. At Arbo Unie we are more than happy to support these initiatives.’
When Arbo Unie started to stimulate innovation within the organisation back in 2014, it did not have a department solely dedicated to innovation. ‘Innovation has always played a role in our company,’ says Schimmel. ‘But the ideas were often ad hoc and there was no clear place in our organisation. The result was that we didn’t really benefit fully from these ideas; they weren’t developed quickly enough into actual products or services. For that, we needed more structure in Arbo Unie.’
It was decided in 2014 to create a business development team. ‘We had to carefully consider how large such a team should be, and what knowledge and types of people it needed. You need people who can think out-of-the-box, perhaps with a background in a different sector and therefore offer a completely different perspective. You also need people who can think about new possibilities.’
Today, the team consists of seven people. ‘For example, we have a strategic designer on the team, as well as someone who has worked at Arbo Unie for years and who has a solid understanding of its clients and the market,’ says Schimmel. ‘The team must consist of a group of people who complement each other, but who also do not hesitate to offer conflicting ideas’ Healthy debate is necessary, because that is what provides good energy.’
Working together is the unique secret behind Arbo Unie’s successful innovation. Working together with the company’s professionals and working together with our clients.‘
Workers at Arbo Unie know what’s going for what, and that knowledge is essential’, Schimmel emphasises. ‘Innovation from an ivory tower is doomed to failure. It has to be nurtured and supported by the entire organisation. After all, you need everyone again to help you implement the products or services. That is why we also run numerous pilot projects internally. That brings the advantage of immediately having a group at hand to test a service or product in a group and see what works and what doesn’t. It is also the ideal way to involve others in innovation. To them it really brings innovation to life.’
What does ‘working together’ actually mean? ‘Sometimes people just pop in and tell us their idea. But we also spend a lot of time talking to professionals in the different regions and we join them on visits to clients. The team actually spends less than half their time at head office. The rest of the time we’re somewhere else.
‘The ideas are noted down,’ Schimmel says. We add our own insights, and sometimes we combine them into a single theme. We eventually organise a workshop where we try to move forward with the initial idea together with our professionals – they are ultimately the experts in the market.
Innovative ideas at Arbo Unie are put through a ‘funnel’, which consists of a number of phases. An idea must meet certain criteria before it moves on to the next phase. One phase can be market research or it can be a practical test or a detailed business case. The idea is then submitted to a group of stakeholders who decide if the idea should go through to the next stage.’
To further develop ideas Arbo Unie uses ‘boot camps’. Schimmel: ‘Together with the professionals, we take ideas to the next level by using their practical knowledge. They’re taken from their everyday practice and become ‘part of us’ for a day. With that knowledge our team can further elaborate the idea until the product or service is ready to market. Although it differs from project to project, we need about four of these boot camps before the product is ready to be introduced to the market.’
In addition to these boot camps, we also employ other creative game techniques to extract knowledge. For example, at the end of the process, we have a ‘dry-run competition’. All the participants are assigned a specific role and we go through the entire implementation process step by step until we have a complete implementation plan on paper with a clear description of all the roles and responsiblities.’
According to Schimmel, the business development team mainly acts as a facilitator. In addition, the team cultivates enthusiasm for these new work processes within the organisation.
By going through this process, more and more uncertainties around the idea are filtered out. ‘This can take a couple of months, even up to one year,’ says Schimmel. ‘Sometimes you skip a few phases. For instance, this is how we launched the Fitbit, a smart bracelet with a number of built-in sensors. The product already existed, so we were able to immediately test it to find out how we can use it and how relevant such a product could be for our intended audience.’
‘An important lesson we learnt is that it is vital to involve the client in the process as early as possible. In other words, don’t invent something and spend a long time developing it, but go straight to the market and see whether it works.’ This has already resulted in the decision to suspend further development of a product and to go back to the drawing board.
Coming up with an idea is ‘the easy part’. To then turn it into a product or service fit for the market is the biggest challenge. ‘This turned out to be harder than we originally thought.’
‘Issues such as privacy, the security of personal data and lots of legislation and regulations play a major role in the occupational health sector. That is why developing innovative products and services is more difficult than we initially expected.’
Besides, the new products and services are also somewhat removed from the existing service delivery. As a result, their acceptance, both by our employees and our clients, takes time. ‘Furthermore, in difficult economic times, not all organisations invest are equally quick to invest in preventive products and services.’
Schimmel does not go into details about the investment and the returns. ‘And it’s actually a strange question to ask. It is not a question of how much innovation costs, but precisely how much it costs if you do not innovate. And I do want to answer that question: it means that in time your organisation will lose its right to exist.’
In the context of the Polshoogte programme (literally taking stock of a situation or reading the pulse), a team spent twelve weeks working intensively with an experienced vitality coach. Polshoogte challenged participants to set personal goals and perform team challenges. Using wearable technology, like the Fitbit, the team collected a wide range of personal data such as heart rate, the number of steps walked and sleeping behaviour.
VIDEO: Find Your Fit - 2015
The programme ensures that vitality is continuously encouraged and measured. This allows participants to monitor their vitality in order to set personal health goals and gives the company a good idea of the vitality of its employees. KPMG is taking part in a pilot project (KPMG Vital), which is to follow on from the Polshoogte programme and offers even more measurement results and insights.
The In.zicht service (literally In.sight) can increase the availability of employees during absenteeism by immediately offering the correct support using prompt and proper alerts. Thanks to predictive estimates based on historical data, the company gets direct control over absenteeism and can take appropriate action.
Just after reporting sick, an employee receives a short online questionnaire. The answers are combined with historical data to provide a reliable prediction of the employee’s health. With the aid of In.zicht, the correct support can be offered in good time, thus reducing absenteeism.
This programme helps teams to measure whether they are doing well (‘goed bezig’). Employees rate their day in the Goed Bezig app and note what went well and what did not. In addition, the app contains statements about their own role, the team, the company and their own wellbeing. This way employees can reflect on their own efforts and results on a daily basis. The results become the starting point for team meetings led by a consultant. It delivers immediate change and results.