Some of the challenge prospective clients that reach out to me are grappling with

Due to my research, public speaking and writing my favourite topics I regularly receive requests to help somebody that is grappling with an issue either around meso-organisational change or about technological capability, innovation or disruption.

Usually after a few emails we schedule a phone call to discuss their context, their intent and my service offering. Thanks to my journal and reflection processes I can track the original requests and the ensuing correspondence or projects. Over the last six months, I have noticed some patterns that are now repeating. Here are some of the most frequently discussed points. While I can help with some of these, with some I cannot help for various reasons.

Because I have always focused on training other consultants and my own clients, I thought it would be a good idea to share these early observations with you.  (Larry, Goran, Bojan, Nik, Albina, Garth, these are for you). To save you all from many emails, I have written 8 blog posts in one!

So here are the emerging patterns of 2019:

  1. I am frequently contacted by organisations or projects that believe that technological change, or preparing for the 4th industrial revolution (4IR) is a project. That there is something that we can do quickly (one of the most popular search terms on this blogsite is “formula for 4IR” and “4IR method”. Preparing for technological change, responding to disruptions, or even preparing to disrupt others is a capability that is distributed over companies, public and civil organisations, regions and individuals and over time. It is not a project that ends, it is a capability that must be continuously nurtured. After addressing one threat or challenge and the next two will be on the horizon. While I love training, what these organisations really need are new technology, innovation, change and knowledge management capabilities.
  2. I am asked by development organisations to prepare their target groups or beneficiaries for the 4th industrial revolution by focusing on one threat. For instance by mastering computer-aided design, design thinking, or helping entrepreneur to cope with advances in digitalisation, 3D printing, or master some automation or sensor technologies. However, the reason why so many people lump so many technological advances together under the banner of the 4th industrial revolution is that these technologies are converging, and if they are not yet converging, they are rapidly learning from each other. That means the capabilities are converging or starting to follow similar evolutionary patterns.  That also means that very few economic activities are left untouched by changes in other sectors, technologies and markets. Again, this is not about training. It is about competence, leadership, sense-making and innovation. Perhaps it is mostly about learning, relearning and knowing what you have to master next. People also commonly confuse “digitalisation” with writing software, whilst telecommunication costs, insufficient regulatory frameworks for e-commerce, closed government (as opposed to open government) or very fast connectivity and data security are ignored.
    People that can quickly master a new domain, like machine learning, big data or concurrent design, will have a distinct advantage in the future. People that are specialised in one skill, especially a vocational skill, may be more vulnerable. But my main point here is that splitting up the technologies is not helpful. Again, the broad technical capability must be fostered. However, in addition to point 1, I want to add that the ability to track, master, integrate and leverage multiple specialised domains continuously over time is very important, even if they do not yet appear to have a relation to your industry, business or organisation.
  3. I am asked to help only the private sector in a country, region or sector. Many organisations believe that the private sector is most vulnerable to disruptions. I believe that many competent firms would be OK, but not all. Uncompetitive companies, un-innovative companies and undermanaged companies are going to be more vulnerable unless the state can afford to protect them and in so doing possibly raising the costs to the society. But what we must not lose focus of is that when one public sector organisation, programme or function fails, the effects could be far-reaching. Take for instance what happens when a local municipality in a developing country is undermanaged. It will affect the whole community. The challenge is that in developing countries the “revolution” or the “disruption” will be about social institutions (local government, universities, technical vocation colleges, schools, or whole governments etc.) that will be caught in a weak position – and unable to catch up or get ahead. So supporting the private sector in a place where many public institutions are failing is just naive. You do not address a market failure by focusing mainly on the private sector, just as you do not address government failure by only working with the government. 
  4. This point is an extension of the previous point. Many organisations that approach me want me to help them get the private sector more innovative. But here is the problem. It is not possible to develop a prosperous and successful private sector without the same happening in the public sector and in civil society. Actually, any form of innovation starts with a good basic and often some good higher qualifications. The changes that people can work together in a sophisticated way, without these arrangements being replicated in other sectors are naive. Complex forms of cooperation within an organisation, company, NGO, school or church depends on the ability to work together to solve problems that span over the ability of individuals. This needs trust, and it comes from the broader society and its formal and informal institutions. You cannot develop the private sector in a vacuum. Management teams of companies are not suddenly going to behave in novel arrangements that don’t exist in schools, sports teams, civil organisations, universities or political parties. Maybe it is possible to develop only the private sector in the short term, but for long term economic development, healthy public sector organisations are a pre-condition. The social technologies that enable the private sector to innovate, to combine old and new ideas, to figure out new ways of arranging teams around objectives, problems and opportunities are in most countries developed with the direct or indirect help of the public sector. Often these ideas are first developed around social, political or local problems. The quickest way to instigate innovation is to focus on creativity, better decision-making and increased performance in publicly funded programmes and civil organisations. Do you want to quickly get new forms of dialogue or new technology to spread in a location? Start with the schools, the local theatre, church or community organisation – and watch how fast the private (and hopefully public) sectors will catch on. Often the most adaptive private sector leaders are serving on the boards of the schools, local NGOs, and they take up new ideas very quickly.
  5. I am often asked to assist struggling industries in developing countries to become innovative, competitive or successful. Maybe the companies were successful once, hopefully not too long ago. The challenge with sectoral upgrading is that the prominent companies must either be very competent in market development, or they must have mastery in a technological domain that has a long cycle time still ahead. With one of these two domains mastered product and process innovation is possible, but perhaps not easy. The real challenge is often that in developing countries the business model innovations are the hardest and the cost of failure are also very high. Thus the incentives to try new business arrangements are low. If the companies are not able or willing to rethink or change their business models, then there is very little one can do. The entrepreneurs that will be successful in five years from now have already made decisions to master emerging markets and technologies today, and they have found a way to foster their competence in these domains within their current companies. They have innovated in the business arrangements, enabling them to innovate in products and processes. If there are no companies that are able to do this it is most likely the best idea to rather invest public funds into investment promotion, education, tech transfer and incubation to try and offset the job-losses when the current companies fail.
  6. I am often approached by internationally funded development projects to do something to create employment in a sector or a region in a developing country. The challenge is the sectors, supporting institutions and even the approach (the ideology) is already decided and cannot be changed. Often even a quick analysis and a few phone calls reveal that the development project has read the situation wrong, or they ignored strong messages of resistance because they believe in their ideology. Yet they persist, and now they are not getting the response from the stakeholders. I notice many of TVET and green economy projects that fall in this category. Even if there is great value in what these organisations have to offer, if they are not responding the binding constraints or challenges (the decision points) faced by the entrepreneurs and government officials, their offer will not be taken up. Or it may be taken up but it won’t stick. My approach for the last few years has been to wait for the projects to realise that they will never reach their targets and then to propose that we try some alternatives to see if we can get some impact. Or I simply turn down the request. Development programmes in the education sector are often
  7. I am often asked to help manufacturers or development organisations in developing countries to prepare for technological disruption at the technological frontier. That means technologies that are newly emerging. The problem is, most companies in developing countries will not be disrupted by cutting edge technology. They will be disrupted when older technologies reach new levels of efficiency and scale, perhaps in combination with newer technology. That means that an older technology evolves to become available as a utility service or on a pay-per-use basis. That is how the fundamental disruptions occur that completely displaces existing markets and sociotechnical arrangements. An example if PV electricity to homes. In many developing countries a homeowner can now buy panels, inverters, brackets and batteries from hardware retailers (or online). It may be illegal in many countries, but homeowners can take their homes off the grid. If enough homeowners do that, national power utilities may collapse. Perhaps another example is that as developing countries switch to fibre internet connectivity, all the IT companies that used to provide small servers, desktop maintenance, server maintenance, cabling installations, etc are disappearing. They are disappearing because they have not long ago mastered an older technology (shared server-based computing, remote network maintenance) that has recently become a utility-based service.
  8. I am asked by an international development organisation to help with a project aiming to support 25, or 50 women, girls, lecturers, youth or a handful of companies. 25 out of a population of thousands or millions is really depressing. This is not systemic, nor is it sustainable. I cannot get involved in these projects, my conscience will not allow me. If any beneficiary group is so marginalised or excluded that 10, 20, or 50 seems like a good indicator of impact, then we should really be going back to the drawing board about the complexity of the system and our sensitivity to the decision points, the attractors and the boundaries in the system. Most likely we should be targeting changes in mandates, roles and functions of institutions and not be focused on individual beneficiaries. The system must be very dysfunctional (meaning somebody must be benefitting enough to keep it in this state), and focusing on getting a handful of people through the system despite all the resistance or challenges is not systemic. In fact, everybody that is inspired by this handful might suffer severe challenges to follow in their footsteps. In a complex system, fixing a little part and then scaling it up does not change the fundamental working of the system. But let me stop venting now, I am asked frequently enough to talk about the potential of complexity thinking applied to developed. Maybe this deserves a blog post of its own.

These are just some thoughts about the challenges that some organisations are grappling with when they reach out to me. These are some of the common objections that many clients are challenged by based on my writing, teaching or speaking. Perhaps these are also the reasons why some clients decide to appoint somebody else or to never reach out to me in the first place. But these are also the points that keep me awake at night, the recurring themes that come up even when I am trying to walk the dog.

Let me know if any you’ve also had these conversations, or whether your organisation, funder or clients are stuck on the same issues. If there is sufficient interest in any of these points then we can perhaps think of how to explore these deeper, or perhaps we can even get together to brainstorm these.

Becoming better at tracking how technologies change over time

The subject of how technologies evolve over time have been receiving a lot of attention over the last 40 years. Actually, much of the research work done in the late 80s and 90s are still relevant today. With all the talk of the fourth industrial revolution, the attention has shifted towards innovations coming from elsewhere away from what do we have to do in our own organisation to improve our performance, offer our clients amazing value, and to create the future we want to be part of.

I am working with several think tanks, research organisations and policy advisors to help governments and key meso-organisations to become better at tracking technological change and potential disruptions. This work draws on my experience of supporting industry and innovation systems diagnostic processes as well as my experience in supporting organisation development and change.

To be better able to predict technological disruptions meso organisations and policymakers must become much better at anticipating future demands. That means they have to shift from being demand responsive (in other words waiting for the private sector to clearly articulate what they need) to anticipating what is needed. This requires a deep understanding of how user needs are changing (market knowledge), but also of how key technological capabilities in the industries they serve are changing (technological knowledge).

The challenge here in South Africa is that most of the organisations that are supporting innovation and technological change are focused on fixing the past. Due to our countries past, they are trying to get marginalised people (women, the youth, black entrepreneurs) into the mainstream economy. These disadvantaged groups need a lot of support because they are expected to compete against incumbents who have access to capital, suppliers and markets.

This research agenda has three pillars:

  1. Figure out how well South Africa is doing in terms of technological change. Which sectors are changing faster, where is productivity and manufacturing value add improving, and where are we falling behind? This area of research is also about mobilising sector organisations, like industry associations or a whole range of meso organisations supporting the private sector to become better at tracking technological change.
  2. Make the landscape of technological support organisations more visible. These organisations can assist both the private and the public sector to embrace, experiment with or adapt to technological change. A next step would be to make sure that these organisations are incentivised to disseminate technological knowledge and that they are not only measured on how they assist individual enterprises or technology transfer projects.
  3. The third pillar is to improve the dynamism in how public sector organisations work together and collaborate with the private sector to promote industrialisation, upgrading and innovation. This is an essential ingredient to strengthen the countries technological capability, to reduce coordination costs and to foster healthy and pro-active public goods that encourage entrepreneurs to search and discover new economic opportunities.

The current research agenda is not yet comprehensive but for me the synergies between these three pillars are great. It is about technological change, about making sense, about promoting innovation within and between organisations and also about strengthening meso organisations.

South African Research units and funding scenarios

I have been holding back on this post for a while, because it touches on a very sensitive situation here in South Africa regarding the student protests about university fees (see #feesmustfall). In South Africa, many of our research and technology development units that are publicly funded are hosted by universities. These centres depend on students and particularly post graduate students to deliver services to industry. At the same time these centres depend on industry to commission research, prototypes and to also take up the graduates. With the massive shortage of funding in the education sector, many of these centres and their hosting universities are starved of funding.

In August, I was helping a leadership team think through their industry strategy. I realised that their strategy was dependent on two implicit assumptions. Firstly, that the student unrest about the fees would be contained and short lived, with government miraculously finding funding from somewhere to relieve the pressure in the system. Secondly, they assumed that the private sector would somehow remain keen to invest in R & D, problem solving and prototyping despite the political uncertainty and adverse business conditions that we have in South Africa at the moment.

I helped the team to develop a set of scenarios, and this is what this post is about. It was a spur of the moment idea at the end of a meeting.

A simple way to develop scenarios would be to take the two assumptions (we usually use uncertainties) and to construct a simple 2 x 2 matrix. I know a 2 x 2 matrix has many shortcomings, but this simple matrix was to allow a team to explore several topics they have been hesitant to consider collectively. This was about helping a group make sense so that they could develop some actions together. With the leadership team, we wrote an assumption about the stability at the university on the horizontal axis. On the left we have a stable political environment at the university, with some high uncertainty about how long the peace would last and how much public funding will be available. On the right hand side we wrote that the situation becomes both unstable and uncertain. This axis is all about the stability of the hosting university.

On the vertical axis we wrote at the top that business people remain optimistic and continues to draw on the facilities and the services of the research centres, while at the bottom we formulated the opposite.

This simple matrix gave us four quadrants which we numbered 1 to 4 clockwise.

Scenario_Matrix

The instruction to the team was to think of each of the quadrants in the extreme of the two assumptions of the quadrant if they both played out. I won’t repeat all that was said here, but will just briefly capture some ideas. In quadrant 1, the situation at the university was stable, while business people continued to draw on their resources. The group agreed that this was the preferred quadrant!

Then they consider quadrant two, where the university was in chaos, and industry had to find alternatives for their services, or they were stuck. Trust relations developed with industry over many years were harmed (again).

In the 3rd quadrant, industry is depressed or paralysed, while the university is unstable. Everybody loses. Good graduates can’t find work, good researchers and lecturers lose hope and possibly leave the system, while business slowly but surely falls behind because the instability is very local. Globally competitors are investing, expanding and growing because the world goes on.

In the 4th quadrant the industry is depressed, meaning that demand from industry is possibly suppressed. The stability at the university is uncertain, meaning little investment takes place. The university does not have the resources to build capability or offers that helps industry, while industry does not have the resources to expand their investment. The whole system just hangs there waiting for something to give.

Now I know that this little scenario exercise was done very fast (we spent an hour on this), and yes, I know it does not address the fundamental issues that the university and government (and politicians) have to sort out. But the leaders quickly realised that their whole strategy was based on a quadrant 1 scenario. In fact, the very academics that always complains about the short term focus of the private sector were now trapped in a short term survival mode themselves. No industry or society can increase its wealth, prospects or competitiveness by waiting, especially when global competitors are at the door, looking for opportunities! This quick exercise helped the team to realise they needed to expand their offerings to be ready for the very likely other quadrants. They also realised that they had to think of ways of adapting their strategy so that the small steps they could take with their existing resources would lay “platforms” or stepping stones for an as diverse as possible range of future alternatives. For instance, one of the technology centres decided to shift its focus from a product development to a process enhancement focus, because there was a strong interest from industry to find ways of improving operations, cutting costs and improving flexibility.

The scenario dialogue enabled several follow up meetings  where the team could draw in more people and together re-imagine their future alternatives. Everybody was relieved that they had some options, where before this meeting they felt trapped without many options.

What I tried to illustrate in this post is that a simple scenario exercise could be a great instrument to help a team realise that despite almost certain disruptions, they could still think in the short term and the longer term. They had some options, they could even create more. By anticipating the future they also felt more ready for the disruptions that we are all waiting for.

For me it was also important to see how this team realised that their clients (industry) also faced huge uncertainties, and that if the research centre could offer services that reduce risks and costs while at the same time creating alternatives for market and technological development. Somehow shifting the focus from their own survival (and fears) towards the needs of industry and graduates looking to complete their research helped them move forward. Thus I could help the team consider how they could ensure their clients continue to innovate, which in turn helped the leadership to better understand how they themselves then have to be innovative.

Innovation was instigated!

 

 

 

How difficult it is to change an organization around a simple insight

In the last few months I have been going back to my change and organizational development roots. I have been on a journey to reconnect my more recent insights on systemic change and innovation systems with my earlier experience in process consulting, supporting organizations to change. I have rediscovered many old ideas that are still extremely valid and useful. I even have to wonder how I forgot some things that once were so important to me. Also, some things that did not seem all that important 10 years ago now seems far more important, but I digress.

Let me share an example of how a more recent insight about innovation became more powerful when I looked at it from an organizational development perspective. In my training work on innovation systems, I often lay a foundation with some simple concepts. One such building block is the idea that there are three kinds of innovation: product, process and business model. Product innovation is the easiest (you need to mainly be creative, know something about either a key technology or a key market), with process and business model innovation often being more difficult because you might need more abstract thinking capability, technical and others skills from beyond your organizations as well as a creative imagination. Easy enough, all the participants nod their heads in agreement and indicate that I can move on. Yet, back at the office this was not so simple.

I noticed that a few of my favorite technology and R & D centres here in South Africa were struggling with this very simple idea. They were mainly focused on product innovation, arguing that their behavior is shaped by the incentives created by public grants that supported them to develop products for wanna-be entrepreneurs (I wrote about the importance of technological capability here). It was convenient to blame the public grants for this incentive, and everybody knew that the results less than ideal (many of these wanna-be entrepreneurs did not stand a chance in the market as they lack technological capability and or business experience). Thus the Status Quo was maintained with everybody talking about changing but not really making the shift.  Until the easy funding became less easy. It was at this point that some management teams realized just how entrenched the culture of product innovation was, and how dependent these organizations have become on public grants.

So I had the task of coaching a team to think through this change process, to reduce their dependence on public funding by helping their team to shift to process innovation from a mainly product innovation focus. This meant that instead of designing, prototyping and manufacturing a particular product for a wanna-be entrepreneur, they shift their attention to helping existing companies or entrepreneurs with a track record improve, enhance or expand their process technologies so that they can themselves develop, prototype and manufacture new products.

Interestingly enough, the technological capabilities for product innovation and process innovation for this particular engineering group have a lot in common. It is mainly the internal processes, arrangements of teams, self assessment criteria (are we making progress?) and the identity of the organization that had to change to make this shift. This in itself meant some business model innovation was required. They also had to become better in forming partnerships with other technology providers. In complexity thinking language, the physical technologies and entrepreneurial technologies will remain largely the same, but many additional or different social technologies would be needed. For instance, some additional skillsets are needed that are more expensive and not typical to technology centre at universities. Lastly, this process focus shift would require far more work on the premises of the client, and also working with many other unknown technologies and sectoral requirements, which meant that concepts such as self-management, temporary work teams and many parallel projects also had to be tried out. It started sounding more and more like a completely new organization and a major disruption that this client could not afford. Starting over was simply not an option. And the individuals in the current team was a real asset.  If this team could not make this shift then very few would be able to make it.

It was agreed that we needed an adaptive process, a series of small experiments that allowed them to try some process innovation applications. The horizons of innovation provided a useful framework (Tim Kastelle inspired me about this model, recently Ralph-Christian took it further). We captured their current technological and market capabilities and agreed that this focus had to be maintained while we find ways to explore the adjacent technological and market spaces without breaking the bank. Tim Kastelle always say 70% of the focus should be on the current block (horizon 1). We did this by first looking which process innovations would be interesting to some of their existing markets (we found a few). The we looked at where their current technological capability could be used in new markets, but in a process innovation way. This could be done by investigating some economic sectors a little deeper.  Thus most of the energy of management remains on the current technological base and markets, with an additional focus on process innovations in an adjacent markets and technologies. We were all surprised that these ideas required very little additional funding (at first), with more specialized equipment and skills required if any of these ideas took hold.

The moral of the story is this. It sounds simple to say “shift attention from product innovation to process innovation”. People might actually agree this is important. But to make this shift requires many internal changes. A process of exploration and mental simulation using a simple framework was all it took to identify some areas where the current management team with its current resources could try several new ideas, without much change to the business plan or operations of the organization. I am very pleased with this outcome.

Thanks to the team for trusting me to facilitate this process. You know who you are!

New series: Organisational knowledge and innovation

In the next few posts I will elaborate on the role of knowledge in enabling learning organisations. In a previous post (here), I have concentrated mainly on how knowledge for innovation is generated in organisations. The response from readers was very positive, and as I worked with management teams to strengthen their innovative culture I realised that there are some further concepts that I must elaborate on. It is not only about what workers do, it is also about the environment created by leaders.

The first post in this series will look at the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge, and how both are formed. The second post explores why explicit knowledge dominates organisations. The third post will discuss how leaders can embrace tacit knowledge and encourage their teams to create new knowledge together.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” 
― Confucius

Unlocking knowledge in organisations

A favorite topic that I love to talk, think and write about is the knowledge that is lurking around in organisations, often untapped.

Last week, the University of Stellenbosch Business School, where I am a member of faculty in the Executive Development programme, published an article I wrote in its thought leader newsletter. It is titled “Unlocking knowledge in organisations to enable innovation”. What started off as a 1200 word article was reduced to 700 words by Linton Davies, the wordsmith that always helps me to better express my ideas when I write formal publications. I think this article as it stands now must be the most I have ever said in only 700 words!

I am really proud of this article in its current short form. It started off many years ago as a much a more complicated module in my innovation systems training session. Now it is a practical workshop format that I use often in organisations supporting innovation, but increasingly in businesses, government programmes and even NGOs.

It is informed by evolutionary and complexity thinking, and is thus in line with my current research and the principles that I now pursue and value. Of course, a lot of extremely important theory is left out in this form, but by helping managers become more aware of how the inhibit or promote knowledge generation in their organisations is for me already a great start.

 

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.

Four functions of innovation and technology management

Originally published in November, 2015, revised in March 2018

I would like to continue the “Instigating Innovation” series (see opening post herewhere to start and the post about culture here). The idea behind this series is that I explain innovation management concepts that can be used by both enterprises and technology transfer and industry support institutions.

To recapitulate: I believe that many industries are struggling to modernise because their supporting institutions use completely different frameworks to manage innovation (or perhaps the supporting institutions make their choices as randomly as enterprises do). One of the first concepts that a tech transfer institute or industry support organisation should transfer to enterprises is “how to manage innovation and technology”. Just because there is an engineer or an MBA/PhD in a company does not guarantee effective or creative management of innovation and technology.

Today I shall focus on the four broad functions that must be managed strategically in every enterprise and supporting institution. Even if someone in the organisation has the job title of Innovation Manager or Technology Manager, these functions should still be visible throughout the organisation. In other words, this is not somebody’s job, but it helps if somebody coordinates these activities.

The four functions agreed by most scholars and innovation experts can be summarised roughly as:

  1. Searching and scanning for new ideas and technologies, both within and beyond the organisation. This includes looking at technologies that could affect the clients of the organisation, and technologies that could disrupt markets and industries.
  2. Comparingselecting and imagining how different technologies could impact the organisation, its markets and its own innovation agenda.
  3. Next comes integrating or deploying the technology or innovation into the organisation. This includes adjusting processes and systems, scaling up implementation, and project managing the whole change process.
  4. The last step is often overlooked, but new technology and innovation often make new ideas, innovations and improvements possible. I call this last step exploiting the benefits of a new technology or idea. This could involve leveraging some of the additional benefits or features of a technology, perhaps by creating a new business unit focused on an adjacent market or particular offering.

When I visit institutions, organisations and companies, I always ask “who is thinking about change taking place beyond your industry or key technology?”. I cannot tell you how often I hear that “the CEO” or “the production manager” are on top of new developments and will be attending a tech fair next year. How can this huge responsibility fall on the shoulders of one or two people, who are at the same time biased towards the current strategy which favours justifying past (sunk) investments? Or if you ask “How did you choose between two technologies?”  you will be surprised how little time was spent considering new business opportunities, or how few companies asked for on-site demonstrations or samples from their preferred technology providers.

I will refrain from being too critical of technology transfer institutions and industry-supporting organisations, except to say that these organisations should be a prime example to industry of how to scan, evaluate, compare and integrate new ideas and technologies. We don’t just want to see the shiny machines and neat facilities, we want to understand how you arrived at your decisions, and how you made the best of your investments after implementing the change. Furthermore, industry wants to know what’s next, or what’s beyond their vision and how it may affect their industry.

To bring it all together, the technological upgrading of industries is plagued by many different market failures. These failures include the tendency NOT to invest due to high research costs, due to fears about making the wrong choices, or because so many decisions and changes must be made at the same time – this while the business continues, markets fluctuate, and technologies change faster and faster. Companies (and institutions) cannot afford just to kick start innovation management immediately before making a change (or when forced by external forces to make a decision). These functions must be managed strategically on a continuous basis, both at the level of top management and within the different functions of the organisation. Both companies and their supporting institutions need to manage innovation and technology, not only from an operational perspective (striving for continuous improvement, etc.) but also from a strategic point of view.

 

If the culture cannot change then the business cannot change

Originally published in August 2015, revised in January 2018

I received many comments and tweets about the previous post. Thank you for ideas and comments

Some agreed that innovation is the result of culture. Some said that culture is not only created by management, but also by staff. For instance, the admin pool in a traditional engineering company can be very innovative (and creative) even if the rest of the business is stuck in the 1980s.

Somebody told me that creating an innovative culture is in itself a chicken-egg (low equilibrium) situation, because for a leader to create (or enable) an innovative culture takes innovation in itself. You can see where this is going.

Then I discovered a recent cartoon in my inbox by Hugh Macleod of Gapingvoid fame. This cartoon says it all.

An organization that cannot change its culture (due to too rigid systems, due to lack of management capability, due to its people) has become trapped in time. While some organizations may exist like this due to sheer momentum, due to protection (by law), by continuous funding, or for whatever reason, will struggle to adapt to external change. These organizations are not resilient and they are at the mercy of external supporters (a.k.a clients, benefactors, funders or shareholders).

I was also asked how some organizations can still innovative despite a poor innovation culture. Again, it is of course possible to replace a machine, or for a few people in an organization to design something brilliant, or for a new process to emerge. Of course it is possible. But it takes much more energy, determination of a few, and some really tenacity to be innovative in an un-innovative (what is the right word here?) culture.

I am sure more comments will come.

Cheers, Shawn

I appreciated the comments received by e-mail, but wonder why people are not posting comments to this article? Is the WordPress registration process to difficult? Please let me know. And keep those comments coming!

Innovation as cultural as opposed to innovation as a technique or function

Originally published in August 2015, revised in January 2018

Reflecting on the correspondence I have received after my previous post and recent training sessions with manufacturers, I have come to realise that people are looking for tools and tricks to encourage innovation in their workplaces. Sometimes it is actually not even about innovation, but about making up for poor past decisions, such as not investing in technology or market development when they should have. Others think of innovation as a function or as a management tool that can be standardised into a job description or an area of responsibility. While this is possible in some contexts, I don’t find this approach to innovation of much use in the smaller and medium-sized manufacturing firms and the research/technology institution space in which I am working.

For me, innovation is firstly a value, a perspective of how organisations should be. When management says, “We are an innovative organisation “or” We want an innovative culture “or” Our reputation is that we are innovative”, then we can move to tools, portfolios, tricks and tweaks (those things that people in innovation functions must attend to). Many textbooks, articles and blog sites on innovation and technology management are then useful. Actually the challenge is to decide which of the bucket loads of advice to use, and consultants such as I typically help organisations to choose a few tools and provide guidance on how to use them fully and consistently. I would dare to say that it is relatively easy to help companies that are already innovative to become more innovative.

 

What really intrigues me is those organisations that do not think of themselves as being innovative, or that are from industries considered to be traditional and not innovative. Perhaps they used to be innovative, or perhaps they are innovative in some areas but not in others. Perhaps they had one or two tricks in the past that have now become irrelevant. These could be extremely competent organisations, such as a university department, a manufacturer of highly specialised industrial equipment or an organisation that simply designs and manufacturers exactly what its customers order. Even if the outputs of these organisations can be described as ‘innovative’, they do not necessarily have innovative cultures that are constantly creating novel ideas, processes and markets. In my experience these organisations have brilliant technical people, but management is often not able to harness the genius, experience or creativity of its people. The main reason for this is not a lack of technique, tools or tricks, but the lack of an innovative culture, leading to a lack of innovative purpose.

These organisations are trapped. They are equipped for the past, and they are paralysed by all the choices they have to make for the future. For management, it feels as though everything it has in place is inadequate and needs equal attention, ranging from attracting staff with better or different qualifications to finding new markets, developing new technological capability, sorting out cash flow and capital expenditure, and addressing succession planning.

Improving the innovation culture of an organisation is a complex issue. It is not about tasks, functions or tools, but about changing relations between people within and beyond the boundaries of the organisation. Innovation in these organisations is a sideshow, a project, whereas it really needs to be central to the business strategy, a different way of looking at the world.

When working with organisations that must improve their innovative culture, interventions like motivational speeches and optimistic visions of the future are not useful and could in fact deepen the crises facing management. Nurturing a culture of innovation goes far beyond establishing or refining innovation management functions. It is a strategic issue that is initiated by top management, but that will soon spill over into every area of the organisation, hence it cannot be driven by a management function called ‘innovation’.

Improving the innovation culture process starts with connecting management back with its people. It starts in the present, the now, not with future scenarios, not with using innovation techniques and better analytical tools, and in most cases not with some or other management fad. It goes beyond trying to improve products, processes or business areas, beyond gaps in management’s capability. It must look at the relations between people, between what people know and can do now (or knew and could do in the recent past), and the potential people see to make small improvements. It is essentially about many dialogues happening throughout and even beyond the organisation. After cultivating dialogue, management needs to empower the organisation’s people to allocate resources to activities that strengthen the learning culture, that turn even small improvement projects into processes that broaden thinking, deepen learning and motivate people to think beyond just their specific tasks.

When management has the courage to decide to improve its culture of innovation it starts a process that cannot be described as incremental improvement, as that sounds too directed. It is rather like a deepening, or an awakening, where employees are inspired to contribute, and management is more aware of what it can do to enable its employees to become more innovative on all fronts. Of course, management faces the risk that outdated management approaches that do not seek to empower employees to be creative will be exposed, and some tough decisions will have to be made.

To nurture an innovative culture requires innovation in itself. It requires management at different levels to rethink its roles from being directive to being enabling, from being top down to being more engaged with its teams.