Managing Innovation: A One Minute Interview with Laura Birk of Barilla Pasta

 Laura Birk is the Director of HR at Barilla America, a part of Italy’s Barilla Group, the #1 provider of premium pasta products in the world. In this One Minute Interview, Birk talks about the challenges of innovation in a global company.

Q. What is your top business or management challenge as you look forward into the year ahead?

A. For us, the top challenge is managing a couple of questions that all center on innovation in a global world. Specifically—

  • How can you influence innovation?
  • Who has the technical competencies within the organization?
  • Who owns the process?
  • And finally, who knows the most about the consumer?

What we are finding–probably not surprisingly–is that different people have different parts of the puzzle—some have the competencies, others own the process, and still others are the ones who know the consumer best. Yet, when we are trying to push innovation globally, that creates some challenges that we are keeping our eye on.

For example, one of our goals is to create innovative and authentic Italian pasta products. Here in the US, our local marketing research and development group knows the US consumer best. Yet our people in Italy are the ones who have the competencies about what true authentic Italian is. The question then is who should own that innovation pipeline?

Q. What are some of the potential challenges associated with this?

A. The challenges on the business side are primarily the complexity of the manufacturing environment and the capacity and the technology needed to implement whatever the innovation is.

We have an innovation business team here for our local geography, but we are also playing on a bigger team in terms of global innovation. While we don’t necessarily need, or want, to be first to market, when we do lead we want to lead well, but that means coordinating locally and globally.

Another challenge from an HR or OD perspective is being able to know the business well enough as an HR OD person that you are invited to the strategic discussion. It doesn’t matter if you have HR-speak, what senior leadership wants to know is if you have business speak. The reality is that you have to be a business leader first, and an HR leader second.

Senior leadership is interested in how a new strategic direction is going to impact people, but they don’t really ask it from an HR perspective. Instead they ask, “What are the risks of us being able to execute this in our business from the people side?” As an HR professional, you need to be in on that conversation early. But if you don’t have the necessary business acumen, then you are not going to be at the table, or be able to chime in or ask the question.

Q. Any advice you might give to peers if they want to get a head start on this challenge in their organization?

A. For me, personally, I’d recommend volunteering to facilitate strategic planning meetings. I’ve found it helps me to anticipate and think about some of those risks we should consider. People always appreciate good facilitation and while you are serving as facilitator, you are also getting great insight about the direction and strategy the company is considering.

Second, I’d recommend spending more time with business people. Actually go and be with them in their work. If they are salespeople, go on sales calls, go to their meetings, be a fly on the wall.

Finally, ask people, “How are we doing?” Sincerely ask them. And I think that when you spend time with them, and sincerely ask them, they are going to be very open to giving you feedback about how you are doing on helping them solve their issues. And if they ask you to come to the table, it is a pretty good signal on how you are doing!


The One Minute Interview is LeaderChat’s new monthly series featuring interviews with some of today’s most intriguing HR-focused thought leaders and practitioners. Laura Birk is a featured speaker at this year’s Blanchard Summit 2010. To learn more about Birk and how Barilla successfully navigated change to win an ASTD BEST Award, be sure to read, Implementing SAP Change at Barilla America

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