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Renee Rotmans

PhD Candidate, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

The strategic challenge of Social Innovation in Ports – Strengthening port competitiveness by leveraging human resources

The transition towards the ‘next economy’ is characterized by worldwide social and economic changes such as shifting economic powers, the energy transition and increasing digitalization of the economy. In order to cope with these changes, firms in ports tend to focus on technological innovation, like automatization and robotics (Ducruet, 2016). Investments in technological innovation truly pay off in terms of competitiveness, however, if human resources are leveraged by accompanying strategies to increase social innovation (Volberda et al., 2014). Social innovation is a strategic innovation characterized by human resource development, with a focus on dynamic management, working smarter, organizing flexible and co-creation (e.g. Damanpour et al., 2010). Social innovation has been annotated as an important antecedent for firm competitiveness and explains roughly 75% of a firm’s innovation success (Volberda et al., 2014). As a result, there is a compelling need to pay attention to social innovation and underlying investments in strategic human resources (SHR). In order to do so, firms need to redesign SHR practices. New SHR practices are the means by which firms can host contemporary changes in the organization of employment relations in a dynamic business world (Laursen & Foss, 2003).
Yet, in the maritime and port research field, the topic is generally overlooked in the analysis of port value creation and little empirical research has been conducted (De Martino et al., 2013). Besides, it is unclear how new SHR practices are used in order to deal with the challenges of the next economy. This research aims to contribute to port-related literature by investigating how new SHR practices can foster competitiveness in the empirical context of ports.
Data was collected using a holistic multiple case study approach, in order to do an in-depth analysis of the usage of new SHR practices. The research setting was the port of Rotterdam, which was considered appropriate due to its complex environment, firm diversity and variety in labor relations. Semi-structured interviews and observations were held at different firms from a variety of industry sectors. Participants in this study composed of employees, managers, governmental officials, consultants and experts. Altogether 59 people were interviewed. Additional relevant archival data was collected.
The preliminary results are twofold. First, firms in the port of Rotterdam particularly utilize four distinctive types of new SHR practices, respectively (1) flexible working roles, (2) vitality, (3) training and development, and (4) employee empowerment, which are related to both increased resilience and competitiveness. Secondly, the results show that the usage of these practices is highly dependent on firm innovativeness. Based on the data, firms were divided into three categories:(1) controversial firms (low innovation performance and usage of new SHR practices is dependent on the financial returns the practices generate), (2) reforming firms (moderate innovation performance and usage of new SHR practices is considered essential to seek business development) and (3) game changing firms (high innovation performance and the usage of new SHR practices is related to seeking game changing opportunities in the industry).
Our results implicate that firms need to actively manage their human resources through a variety of new SHR practices to stimulate the capability to be more adaptive and flexible (resilient), which is essential for ports to strengthen their competitiveness.


Renee Rotmans is a PhD candidate in social innovation at the Department of Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM).
Renee obtained her Bachelor IBA and Master of Strategic Management at RSM. Then she started working as a junior researcher and lecturer at iBMG (research in the health sector) and worked at the Erasmus Medical Center.
Currently, Renee is doing her PhD in social innovation and studies the underlying strategic investments in human resources, with a specific focus on new strategic human resource practices in a port context.