If you’re like most people, learning that 62% of employees who work in bars and restaurants don’t wash their hands makes you uncomfortable. It’s estimated that sixty thousand people are hospitalized annually as a result of foodborne diseases that are preventable with proper hand hygiene.

I wish I could help you unlearn that statistic and it doesn’t get any better. Research suggests that the hand hygiene compliance rate in restaurants is 38%. The rate is only marginally better in medical centres (38.7%) and only 5% of us wash our hands for at least fifteen seconds after using a public washroom. Changing the behavior of restaurant employees and health care practitioners requires a special kind of innovation that addresses changes in social behavior—innovation that is social.   

We often think of innovation in terms of technology. When we think innovation, we don’t think about people not thinking about washing their hands. We instead think about what I call technological innovation, innovation that refers to things like smart phones, self-driving cars, robots or artificial intelligence.

Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile, who has studied individual creativity, team creativity, and organizational innovation, defines creativity as novelty that works. Building on this, I see innovation in terms of the implementation of novelty that works. Far too often, people creatively build Apps only to struggle with user adoption. The challenge here is that, while the building of an App involves creativity (novelty that works), getting people to use the App involves social innovation which means the implementation of novelty that works. The challenge with the implementation side of things is that there are two parts. Technical implementation refers to ensuring the App works as it should and all bugs have been fixed. Social implementation describes the non-technical factors contributing to the successful adoption of an innovation.

Far too often, you see people building creative Apps but struggle with user adoption. The challenge here is that building the App involves creativity, novelty that works.

If you pay attention only to the technical hype around innovation, you quickly become convinced that all the opportunities lie with artificial intelligence and automation. There are generally two ways people frame how artificial intelligence will affect the future of work. Either robots are going to take our jobs or jobs will be held only by those who manufacture and steer artificial intelligence.

What we know for sure is that automation will first be used for procedural, repetitive, and task-oriented jobs. The jobs that won’t be taken over by automation are those where people leverage technology to use their very human judgement to solve problems like getting more health care workers to wash their hands. For example, in one hospital with a hand washing compliance rate of just 10% researchers were able to move the rate to 90% by leveraging technology and paying close attention to the social side of innovation.

Researchers installed cameras in the ICU, carefully set up to capture only the gel dispenser and sink. Motion detectors alerted a team in India when staff members entered or left the room. Although staff knew the cameras were installed, the cameras themselves did nothing to affect the compliance rate. What changed behavior almost immediately was feedback. The Indian team compiled data almost in real-time, sending reports to shift managers at the beginning of each shift. A digital display board in the public hallway reported the percentage of all staff who had washed their hands that week alongside the percentage of those active on duty who were washing their hands. The rate jumped almost immediately from 10% to 90%.  

Technological innovation is only going to get cheaper and easier. It’s becoming less costly to implement novelty that works. Most of us simply ignore the white space of innovation that is social; innovation that seeks to change social norms. In my experience, most people underestimate innovation that is social. When, for example, the car service UBER launched in 2009, one of the company’s first challenges was to overcome the well-established cultural norm that taxis are yellow. For most North Americans, the only safe way to ride in a stranger’s car was to step into a yellow one. UBER needed to mount a campaign that challenged this cultural norm when they began by introducing black cars. Airbnb similarly had to convince users that staying in a stranger’s home was safe. There are legendary stories of early investors thinking this was too big a hurdle to overcome. At the time, Airbnb’s proposition was, essentially, visit a website of which you have had very little experience and book a room in a total stranger’s home where you will stay in their spare room. This was quite the proposition, especially for a single woman travelling to a big city. 

When most people think of innovation, they ignore one of the most fundamental components of success: the person for whom the innovation is intended. We too often focus on the technology, not on how or why the end-user is going to use the App or product. Few developers can clearly articulate how their product solves a problem for their customers. 

Most of us are ignoring the white space of innovation that is social. Innovation that pays attention to the changes in social norms.

The future of innovation is likely to be social for a number of reasons. First, access to software is becoming increasingly easy, cheap, and fast to deploy. The conversation about functions and features is long over. Second, we’re heading into a world where we will write software using natural language. Finally, artificial intelligence is likely to become an everyday part of most jobs. Most of us already walk around with super-computers in our pockets. All companies will have access to the technological edge, but what’s going to matter most is how they change the lives of their customers.     

Why does innovation that is social matter for you and your business?

Four Season’s is often held up as a gold standard example of client service. Many of their innovations involved very little technology and instead focused radically on innovations that were social. When Isadore Sharp, the legendary Founder, Chairman, and CEO of the Four Seasons, was asked how does the Four Seasons get away with charging significantly more than the competition? He answered, “It is because we do common things, uncommonly well.” Four Season’s did not become a leading company by building an App, they focused on building a culture. The focused on their people. They focused on ensuring that even their lowest paying employees felt valued. Jim Fisher, Professor Emeritus at the at the University of Toronto’s, Rotman School of Management, tells the story of a friend who was working with a client in Vancouver. He and his client needed to spend three days together, and the client had paid for him to stay at the Four Seasons. He spent the mornings working with the client. In the afternoon, he spent time in in his room catching up and preparing for the following day with the client. He moved the desk and chair near the window to take advantage of the beautiful sun while he worked. A few months later, he happened to return to the same hotel. When he walked into his room, it was not the same room, but it was on the same side of the hotel. To his surprise, the chair was setup by the window just has had done for his previous visit. 

The next time you read about technological innovation try to think about innovations that are social. Innovations that solve problems computers cannot solve. It is going to be a long time before Artificial Intelligence is going be able to improve the compliance rates of people washing their hands. We may use Artificial Intelligence to help solve problems, but it is the judgement and reasoning of humans using technology that will result in innovations that are social. There is considerable white space in the domain of innovations that are social and those of us brave enough to take on these challenges will be the ones building the future.