Instigating innovation in traditional industries

Originally published in January 2016, revised in March 2018

The average manufacturer in a developing country often grapples with the notion of innovation. That is why such industries are often called “traditional“, although almost all industries will have one or two outliers. While governments, such as the South African government, offer incentives to stimulate innovation, most manufacturers do not identify with the term “innovation” the way governments use it. For instance, when governments use the word “innovation” they often mean “invention“, in other words something that can be protected, copyrighted and owned (see more about the differences between innovation and invention here). While I understand the argument for patenting and protection, I think this narrow definition of innovation is inhibiting many industries from increasing their productivity and competitiveness by copying what works elsewhere (this is just a process of catching up). It also fails to recognize that in many value chains the manufacturers themselves make components or sub-systems that go into overarching architectures (defined by standards, compliance, specifications), so their design authority is limited in scope.

Innovation_invention

Here is a list of synonyms from thesaurus.com for innovation that I have assessed to see how enterprises might understand or react to these words:

  • Modernization – many enterprises dream about this but often do not have the financial means nor the organizational capability to pull it off (one day, some other time)
  • Contraption – many innovations and most inventions result in one of these. You can see them standing in  corners in most factories
  • Mutation, addition, alteration, modification – this is what most innovations in traditional industry would look like. They are doing this all the time as their machines get older, but this behaviour is mostly not recognized nor speeded up.
  • Newness, departure, deviation – the bolder enterprises with more financial and organizational capability might try these, but it takes capital to maintain.

Most people understand innovation as an outcome, but the word is a noun that implies change and novelty. It is about a shift, even if it is often incremental. The reason why so many of our enterprises in South Africa are not regarded as innovative is because they struggle (or perhaps do not have the organizational capability) to manage several simultaneous change processes. As Tim Kastelle posted some years ago, change is simple but not easy. Although this is often described as a technology problem it is really a management problem (see some older posts here). I would go even further and state that in many industries the margins are so narrow that even those enterprises that have a reasonable management structure would struggle to finance many innovations at the same time.

However, in my experience of having visited more than 50 manufacturers every year since 2009, I am always stunned and awed by how ingenious these companies can be. They keep old machines running, often modifying them on the fly. They operate with a fluctuating and unreliable electricity supply, inconsistent water pressure and often hardly any technical support. What policy makers often do not realize is that in developing countries it takes a lot of management time and capacity just to keep the throughput going. The time and effort to go and explore “change” beyond what is necessary in the short to medium term is very costly. The costs of evaluating new ideas, new technologies, new markets and better suppliers are all far greater in developing countries than in developed countries. Yet at the heart of innovation is the ability to combine different inputs, different knowledge pools, and different supporting capabilities with different market possibilities.

There are two implications for innovation promotion practitioners.

  1. The process of instigating innovation must start with recognizing how companies are innovating NOW. How are they modifying their processes (and products), and how much does it cost? What are the risks that are keeping them from introducing more novelty? Perhaps they could use the Horizons of Innovation to create a portfolio of innovation (change) activities that can be identified at the enterprise or industry levels.
  2. It is hard if not impossible for different manufacturers in most countries to figure out what others are struggling to change at a technological level. Use your ability to move between enterprises to identify opportunities to turn individual company costs into public costs (this is often cheaper). Do not take the innovation away from enterprises, but use your meso level technology institutions to try and accelerate the learning or to reduce the costs of trying various alternatives. Be very open with the results to enable learning and dissemination of ideas.

The process of instigating innovation must start with recognizing where manufacturers are naturally trying to change, just as a change process in an organization must start with understanding current behaviour, culture and context. Somehow innovation has become so associated with contraptions and narrow views of technology that the body of knowledge of organizational development and management of change have been left behind.

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