Between a rock and a hard place. Sectoral vs. local approaches to private sector development

I am preparing for a presentation at a conference in May about development programmes shifting from a sectoral to a regional or local perspective. This got me thinking about these shifts in focus and why they appear.

In economic development, it is often necessary to choose whether to intervene at a sectoral level, or whether it would be better to take a locational or geographic approach. In my experience I have learned that when you start with the one, i.e. with a specific sector or value chain, you often end up with the other, i.e. supporting specialization or addressing specific issues in a certain location. But this is of little consolation to managers of development programmes and Local Economic Development units who are then typically measured by the wrong indicators or that have different incentives due to the design of their programme or institutional mandate.

During my MBA, the Professor in Organisational Development introduced us to a really elegant tool to assess whether a tension or conflict between different approaches could really be addressed. He introduced us to Polarity Management, a simple instrument developed by Johnson (1992). According to Johnson, many problems that we face today are not really problems to be solved, but polarities to be managed. Johnson argues that we can continually try to solve these problems by shifting our strategies to another mode where we perceive lots of benefits. The trouble is that after a while of some negative aspects emerge, and suddenly the benefits of the other strategy seems to be more attractive.

Polarity management is an instrument that can be used by change management practitioners to understand these polarities and to manage them. It implies that perhaps these different strategies even depend on each other, like breathing in versus breathing out. We need both, even if they have very different objectives, benefits and downsides. This means that the strengths and the weaknesses of alternatives must be understood, and then managed.

In development we have many polarities, for example wealth creation versus poverty reduction, or designed interventions versus enabling evolution, project versus process, top down versus bottom up, and many others. It is very expensive and even risky to shift between these, and an organisations current expertise, instruments and orientation may find it very hard to make these shifts effectively. But some try and some even manage to do this.

This post is for those organisations that are undecided about their strategy and their focus.. A key question then is how do we manage these alternatives, especially if we want the best of both worlds?

There are 3 steps to better understand a polarity:

  1. Fill in the headings of the two polarities in the matrix
  2. Capture the strengths and the weaknesses of both in the columns
  3. Determine if there is a movement of preference between the polaries, meaning that when the negative consequences of a particular strategy becomes too much, strategy is shifted to the other approach for its apparent strengths. Then over time, the negatives start to weight in on the positives, resulting in a shift to the other approach.

Below I have quickly written down some of the positives and negatives of both approaches. This is an incomplete list but I think it is sufficient to illustrate the point. The PDF of the graphic below can be found here. For those that cannot read so small, the bottom line is this: there are pluses and minuses to both paradigms. Under each strategy, the benefits of the one approach may outweigh the negatives of that approach, but be aware, these weights are changing and after a while the other strategy may become more desirable!

Polary table

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The third step in understanding the polarity is to look at whether there is a shift between these polarities. From my experience working in a dozen or so developing countries, development programmes are either designed to be sectoral or geographic, with very few programmes designed to do both. From a local perspective, institutions and programmes are designed and resourced to either be targeted at specific industries and sectors, or they have a locational focus. It is very hard for programmes and institutions to build a case that a strategic shift to the other paradigm may be needed, even if for only a part of the resources to be dedicated to the other approach. This typically happens when the negatives of a current path starts to outweigh the positives, and the benefits of the other approach increasingly looks appealing. The danger is that a compromise is reached, instead of a synergy being developed.

From a Local Economic Development perspective, growing the technical capability to pursue both strategies simultaneously is important. This does not imply that both are equally important at any given time, as both these approaches have different timescales, resource requirements, and objectives. For example, it would be unwise to leave a dominant sector to its own devices in order to focus on emerging enterprises. At the same time, focusing on the issues of a dominant sector might distract attention from purposefully promoting emergence, diversification and economic resilience. Yet, many programmes and organisations are forced to choose, often too early when not enough is understood about the dynamics of the place or the industries. For me the worst reason to choose an particular approach is because some or other decision maker has attended a training course or conference, or because a particular approach is deemed “best practice”. In fact, most of my time is spent trying to help leaders and decision makers get out of a mess because their programme or institutions was designed based on some ideology or “solution” without enough attention being given to the requirements, trajectories and complexity of the specific context.

For national governments and international development programmes there seems to be a continuous shift between these two. Almost like a flip-flopping from one to the other. I think that the shifts are counter productive, as the learning from the previous shifts are often lost. If I just think back over my 16 year career how often the value chain or sub sector approaches or alternatively cluster and Local Economic Development have become fashionable again and then losing its appeal after a short time.

My conclusion is that while there is a tension between these approaches, the shifting between the strategies are not taking place at an institutional or programmatic level. Decisions about these strategies are made at higher levels of government and development cooperation with little regard for the challenges faced at sub national level in developing countries to build and grow “the right” institutions that can ensure long term economic evolution and development.

At the implementation level, regional development programmes should do both:

  • Sectoral programmes that ignores the impact of their sector on the geographic areas they are working in are most likely creating negative externalities, even with the best intentions in mind and even when they achieve their objectives of inclusiveness, job creation or export promotion. The negative externalities could be about the environment (mono economy, mono culture), or about increasing the coordination cost of every economic activity not related to the priority sectors (institutional or locational lock-in to particular paths and trajectories). Sectoral programmes that ignore opportunities for regional nuances to develop in their targeted sectors miss important opportunities to enable diversification and emergence of unique regional capabilities.
  • Location development programmes that do not collaborate with other locations to build sufficient scale in particular sectors to justify investing in particular regionally significant institutions will forever remain trapped in low value add, or perpetual dependence on the priorities and mood shifts of national governments. While trying to help every kind of economic activity in a region, you have to at some point also start promoting specific industries and sectors in order to try and reach some leverage or scale.

But most importantly, the economic activity, available institutional capabilities and the regional context prescribes where to start. And when you have started down a chosen path, be sensitive to when it may be necessary to foster additional organisational or collaborate with other institutions with different more adequate capabilities to enable the benefits of the other strategy to be leveraged. A key challenge in developing countries is that we do not have a rich layer of supporting institutions pursuing different strategies. Everyone seem to be trying more or less the same approaches, or chasing the same politically set targets.

In our capacity building sessions in Mesopartner we always elaborate on the importance of value chains and sectors to Local Economic Development practitioners, and the importance of regional competence development for value chain and sector development specialists. Actually, the process of diagnosing industries and regions are very similiar, even if you would give slightly more attention to different issues and perspectives.

In the end, from a bottom up perspective, supporting specific industries allows for scale and focused public investment, but caution must be taken to not create path dependence or institutional lock in. At the same time, a regional approach is critical as it allows for emergence of new kinds of economic activity and for diversity to emerge. I think we need to development of synergies for both, but it depends on the context what your priority should be. Simply being aware that there are pluses and negatives to either strategy is already a good start! This makes it much easier to collaborate with other organisations and programmes that have different objectives and priorities.

Now I have some questions to my readers:

  1. What is your current approach in your programme or organisation? Sectoral or locational?
  2. Have you even been through a shift from the one to the other in your programme, or do you cater for both?
  3. How did making the shift work out? Did you have the networks, resources and expertise to make this shift?
  4. What would you do differently next time?
  5. Please share your thoughts by commenting below, or send me an email if I can paste your comments unanimously if you are afraid to upset somebody higher up the chain.

References:

JOHNSON, B. 1992.  Polarity management : identifying and managing unsolvable problems. Amherst, Mass: HRD Press.

 

Significance over scale when selecting sectors

When promoting territorial economic development from an innovation systems perspective it is important to find ways of increasing the use of knowledge and innovation in the region. However, in mainstream economic development there is a tendency to target the private sector based on scale. This means that practitioners look at quantitative measures such as jobs, numbers of enterprises, numbers of beneficiaries, etc. when deciding where to do analysis and focus support. This is common practice in value chain promotion, sub sector selection, etc. Many development programmes do this as well prioritizing scale measures such as jobs, women, rural individuals, etc.

From my experience of assisting development organisations to strengthen the economic resilience of regional economies (which means more innovation, more experiments, more diversity, increased use of knowledge, more collaboration between different technological domains), I have found that the scale argument is distracting and too focused on the beneficiaries (whatever is counted) and not focused enough on those indirect public or private agents that are significant and that enable a whole variety of economic activities to take place. With significant I mean that there could even be only one stakeholder or entry point (so the direct scale measure is low) but by addressing an issue it enables a whole variety of economic activities to take place.

Of course, scale is very important when a local politicians need votes. It is also important when you have limited budget and must try to achieve wide spread benefit. For this reason scale is very important for social programmes.

However, when local institutions are trying to strengthen the local innovation system, in other words improve the diversity technological capability of a region, then scale becomes a second priority. The first priority then becomes identifying economic activity that enables diversity or that reduces the costs for enterprises to innovate, use knowledge more productively should be targeted. The reason why this does not happen naturally is that these activities are often much harder to detect. To make it worse, “significance” could also be a matter of opinion (which means you have to actually speak to enterprises and their supporting institutions) while crunching data and making graphs often feel safer and appear to be more rigorous.

My argument is that in regions, the long term evolution and growth of the economy is based on supporting diversification and the creation of options. These options are combined and recombined by entrepreneurs to create new economic value in the region, and in so doing they create more options for others. By focusing exclusively on scale, economic actors and their networks increasingly behave in a homogeneous way. Innovation becomes harder, economic diversity is not really increased. I would go as far as saying that success becomes a trap, because once a recipe is proven it is also harder to change. As the different actors becomes more interdependent and synchronized the system becomes path dependent. Some systems thinkers refer to this phenomena as tightly coupled, meaning a failure in one area quickly spills over into other areas. This explains why whole regions goes into decline when key industries are in decline, the economic system in the region became too tightly coupled.

But I must contradict myself just briefly. When interventions are more generic in nature, meaning they address market failures that affect many different industries and economic activities, then scale is of course important.

The experienced development practitioners manage to develop portfolios where there are some activities that are about scale (for instance, targeting a large number of informal traders) and then some activities that are about significance (for instance ensuring that local conformity testing labs are accessible to local manufacturers).

The real challenge is to figure out what the emergent significant economic activities are that improves the technological capability in the region. New emergent ideas are undermined by market failures and often struggle to gain traction. Many new activities requires a certain minimum economic scale before it can be sustained, but this is a different kind of scale than when practitioners use scale of impact as a selection criteria. Many small but significant economic activities cannot grow if they do not receive public support in the form of promotion, awareness raising or perhaps some carefully designed funding support.

There are a wide range of market failures such as high coordination costs with other actors, high search cost, adverse selection, information asymmetry and public good failures that undermines emergence in local economies. It is exactly for this reason that public sector support at a territorial level (meaning sub national) must be sensitive to these market failures and how they undermine the emergence of new ideas that could be significant to others. The challenge is that often local stakeholders such as local governments have limited influence over public institutions in the region that are funded from other spheres of public administration.

Let me wrap up. My argument is that scale is often the wrong place to start when trying to improve the innovation system in a region. Yes, there are instances where scale is important. But my argument is that some things that could be significant, like the emergence of variety and new ideas often get lost when interventions are selected based on outreach. Furthermore, the focus on large scale impact draws the attention to symptoms of problems and not the the institutional or technological institutions that are supposed to address market failures and support the emergence of novelty.

I will stop writing now, Marcus always complains that my posts are too long!

Let me know if I should expand on the kinds of market failures that prevent local economies from becoming technologically more capable.

 

 

Series: Building technological capability

In the next few posts I will focus on building technological capability in developing countries. I am specifically thinking of Sub-Saharan Africa as I write these posts, but I am sure that some of the ideas will be relevant to my colleagues working in other parts of the world.

What do I mean with technological capability? We see technological capability as going beyond what firms can do, to what societies or parts of society can use or do with technology. It is a capability that is manifest in products and processes, but that arise from a capacity to match a problem or opportunity with technological systems, sub-systems or combinations of systems. This means that technological capability is not only about technological skills (for instance in knowing how to combine different technologies, or what the latest advances are), but also has business and networking skills to identify and recognize opportunities, discover what solutions can fit the context and constraints (like performance specifications, prices, volumes) and how to organize supply, delivery and maintenance. It thus combines all the elements of innovation including product knowledge (understanding components, sub-systems, architectures), process knowledge as well as business knowledge.

To build technological capability in a country or an industry is the result of an ongoing search process where networks of businesses, academia and government officials search for what is possible at reasonable value and margins, what can and what cannot be done within the local context. What can and cannot be done in the local context is a complex issue that is affected by four factors that I will briefly outline below. It is not only an engineering design problem, and it is not only about products and patents. It is not about a lack of knowledge or a lack of PhDs and engineering students. There are several things that must be worked on at the same time but a whole range of actors working towards different goals.

In many instances the public sector is more eager to develop domestic technological capability than the private sector itself. The private sector in Sub Saharan Africa is in most countries fragmented, and search costs as well as coordination costs at the level of products, processes and networks are very high. That is why those that can afford to take risks and that can afford to take a long term view will most certainly benefit disproportionately to those who are driven by short term profits. For instance, local manufacturers of components that invest very little to nothing in R&D cannot be expected to compete in the long run with international or regional competitors who are investing in R&D.

My late friend and business partner, Jorg Meyer-Stamer argued that there are four pillars [1] that technological capability is built on:

  1. The skill of the producers to imitate and innovate at product, process and business model levels. This is largely dependent on pressure to compete as well as pressure to collaborate with each other;
  2. The economic, political, administrative and legal framework conditions, which determine whether incentives to develop technological capability exist. In the past, it was often not recognised that these incentives do not exist in many developing countries, especially if an import substitution policy relieved companies of all pressure to be competitive or to innovate;
  3. Direct support by technology-oriented state institutions or specific types of knowledge intensive service companies – depending on the given development level, the competition situation and the characteristics of a technology branch in the given country. These organizations disseminate technical and expert knowledge between different actors, knowledge domains and industries and play a critical role in the use of and application of tacit and explicit knowledge;
  4. Indirect support by the public and private educational system; in addition to a sound basic education it is important that technical training of a suitable quantity and quality is available at the secondary-school level and also in the universities. The private sector often plays a role in short term training aimed at particular technology applications. Overall the responsiveness of the education sector in identifying and responding to changes in how technology is applied, developed or used in society.

The close interaction between these four pillars creates technological capability. Thus technological capability differs between countries and even within countries because the context differs. A single firm may in the short to medium term manage to get a sophisticated product into the market, but to sustain its position it will sooner or later need to tap into the education system, the knowledge networks of intermediaries and technology experts, or in supplier networks. Technological capability is not measured at the level of patents or products developed (this does not measure the system, it measures a single firm), but is best measured at the level of regional or international competitiveness of industries, entrance of new domestic and international competitors, and exports.

What developing countries fail to achieve is to crowd in many firms and industry networks by creating public goods that intensifies competition and that force firms to collaborate on critical issues like skills development, the development of industry specific infrastructure, etc. Despite being a big buyer in many countries, procurement patterns, priorities and performance criteria are not available to domestic producers (until it is too late). The education sector is mainly funded to provide basic and undergraduate education along strict disciplines, not to constantly upgrade the existing workforce to cope with technological shifts and the integration of different knowledge bases. Universities are funded to do research at a product or process level, not to do applied research that will modernize industries. The importance of various networks of technological intermediaries and knowledge providers are overlooked.

The private sector must also shoulder some blame. Industry bodies are often mainly focused on advocating for favorable conditions to protect existing investment or interests, not on increasing local supplier networks or building industries. Firms would often rather collude than collaborate. Industry associations are typically organized via traditional sub-sector structures, while global production is becoming more integrated, multi-disciplinary and application orientated.

In closing, technological capability is not only created through policy. It is not created through industrial or innovation policy, although it helps. It is not created by individual champion firms, although this certainly makes it easier. Technological capability is built as a result of an innovation system where the context matters. Firms able to manage their own internal technology and innovation are essential, but these typical arise out of public funded investment into technology intermediaries, management capability and the overall performance in the education sector. It is not possible to increase the technological capability of a group of firms in a particular industry without looking at the broader context where the four areas outlined earlier shape the outcomes in the medium to long term.

From my experience in assisting to promote technological capability in developing countries an ongoing facilitation effort funded by the public sector AND the private sector is needed to broker collaboration, but also to look at ways that local demand can be met by the broader system in the long term. In many countries and industries the best host for such a process is a technology intermediary attached to an university or a development programme, with a mandate to build networks around local opportunities that is not only about engineering, but also about reducing the costs of finding opportunities, suppliers and suitable technologies.

 

Notes

1 – These four pillars later became the foundation of the RALIS methodology that we use to diagnose and improve innovation systems.

Promoting sectoral innovation systems

I am receiving more requests for support to diagnose and improve innovation systems than ever before. It’s just been a few years since I have decided to focus all my attention at working with the upgrading of regions and industries from an innovation systems perspective and I am pleased that this decision is working out.

The most popular demand is for support to promote sectoral innovation systems. However, people confuse the “sectoral” with a classical sector driven approach. In a purely sector driven approach the focus is on a broad group of firms that falls within a broad industry classification. This may to some extent include some suppliers and key customers, but even a sector-based approach can still be too broad to tell us much about the patterns of innovation, how knowledge is used, and how institutions respond to the typical market failures in that sector.

A sectoral innovation system is more about how different groups that uses a common knowledge and technological domains work, how knowledge flows and how technology (which includes knowledge) evolves. To quote my own work (Cunningham, 2012)

“According to Malerba (2005), the emphasis of sectoral innovation systems is on a group of firms that develop and manufacture the products for a specific sector and that generate and utilize the technologies of that sector. The boundary of the system is drawn around a technological paradigm that is formed by a knowledge base, specific technologies and inputs, the different actors and networks that are systemically interacting, and the institutions supporting a specific industry. This is an important difference from value chain analysis, where the logic of the chain is determined by the system surrounding the conversion of a raw material into a product for a market. “

What I am trying to say is that instead of looking at the manufacturers based on similar inputs (raw materials, equipment, skills) and outputs (products and services), in an sectoral innovation system approach we look more at the common technological or knowledge domain that brings various firms and institutions together. This knowledge domain could spread over several industrial sectors, linking different value chain actors together. In fact, many industrial clusters often emerge around a particular group of complimentary knowledge bases. For example, aluminium die casters, aluminium casting equipment manufacturers, and their key customers in the automotive and aerospace industries would make in interesting sectoral innovation system to investigate. On the surface, automotive and aerospace companies don’t seem to belong together, but from a knowledge and technological domain around aluminum processing and its applications it makes sense.

The second part that people get wrong about a sectoral innovation system is that it goes way beyond innovation at the level of the firms. While the physical results of innovation is often easy to see at the levels of firms, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The innovation system describes how knowledge gets created, shared, forgotten and the dynamic relations between them. Furthermore, in any innovation system approach attention must be given to how policies and rules create incentives to innovate (or not to innovate).

Sectoral innovation systems researchers distinguish between high R&D-intensive sectors (such as electronics or drugs) and low R&D-intensive sectors (such as textiles or shoes). These systems change over time as the different elements co-evolve. This means that within a traditional economic sector like the foundry sector (using standard industrial classification schema) there could be areas that are more R & D intensive (such as aluminium) and other parts where the R & D is mainly done either by equipment suppliers or customers. Each of these different intensity R & D systems within the foundry sector would constitute the starting point of a sectoral innovation system. Another example is the machine tooling sector. In some knowledge domains, tooling is developed by the customer of the toolmaker that is developing a new product. In other knowledge domains, the toolmaker is responsible for assisting a customer to come up with a tooling design. Yet in another area, equipment manufacturers push toolmakers to adopt new ways of making tools. For me these are all different sectoral innovation systems. Lastly, these sectoral innovation systems can also be very different within a country like South Africa. Some regions may be dominated by downstream industries like packaging, while other regions might be influenced more by the availability of high quality infrastructure, market density and logistics.

Let me stop here to keep the post short. In conclusion, a sectoral innovation system approach is more about the knowledge and common technological domains than it is about standard classifications of industries and sub sectors. Within an economic sub sector (like tooling or foundries or food processing) there could be several sectoral innovation systems. To make matters more confusing, several different sectors or links in a value chain could be brought together within a particular sectoral innovation system around specific knowledge or technology domains.

I am looking forward to your questions and comments to this post.

 

Sources:

CUNNINGHAM, S. 2012. 2012.  The fundamentals of innovation system promotion for development practitioners. Leveraging a bottom up understanding for better systemic interventions in innovation systems. Mesopartner Monograph 5. Mesopartner.

MALERBA, F. 2005. Sectoral Systems. How and why innovation differs across sectors. In The Oxford handbook of innovation. Fagerberg, J., Mowery, D.C. & Nelson, R.R. (Eds.), Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Preparing for a different manufacturing future

In Africa, we face the challenge of a manufacturing sector that often manufactures products in low volumes. In a country like South Africa, we manufacture a wide range of products but often at low scale. Even our manufacturers that manufacture in larger volumes are still small compared to European or Asian competitors. In some parts of Africa we are further challenged by not having very sophisticated domestic demand in many sectors. When demanding customers are far away it becomes much more difficult to be innovative and well informed of what is possible and what can be done to exceed or at least meet the demands of customers.

But I can sense an important change taking place. I am frequently visiting manufacturers that are becoming much more knowledge intensive. They are smaller and more flexible than their more established competitors, and they combine different skills sets, technology platforms and knowledge bases.

In a forthcoming paper [1] that I co-authored with Garth Williams of the Department of Science and Technology and Prof. Deon de Beer (Vaal University of Technology), we offered the following definition of Advanced Manufacturing.

Advanced manufacturing is an approach that

  • Depends on the use and integration of information, knowledge, state of the art equipment, precision tooling, automation, computation, software, modelling and simulation, sensing and networking;
  • Makes use of cutting edge materials, new industrial platform technologies [2], emerging physical or biological scientific capabilities [3] and green manufacturing philosophies; and/or
  • Uses a high degree of design and highly skilled people (including scientific skills) from different disciplines and in a multidisciplinary manner.

We also argue that Advanced Manufacturing includes a combination of the following.

  • Product innovation: Making new products emerging out of new advanced technologies (including processing technologies).
  • Process innovation: New methods of making existing products (goods or services).
  • Organizational innovation or business model innovation: Combining new or old knowledge and technologies with traditional factors of production [4] in non-traditional fields or disciplines in unique configurations.

I am very proud that our definition of advanced manufacturing was also taken up by the Department of Trade and Industry in their next Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP) 2014/15-2016/2017.

The implication is that our technology development, technology transfer and education programmes need to change in order to be better able to equip and support manufacturers. Manufacturers increasingly need to be able to manage multidisciplinary teams using different technologies. These manufacturers must not only be able to learn fast from the market around them, they must be harness and pro-actively develop new combinations of knowledge within their enterprise. Existing or potential manufacturers must also think differently about manufacturing. Smaller factories, using more modern equipment in a flexible way is now a competitive advantage. The entry costs for starting a small manufacturing enterprise has never been so low. For instance, the cost of an automated electronics surface mount production line has come down by more than 70% in less than 10 years. Additive manufacturing allows tooling and products to be developed in parallel, but also makes it possible to develop new products very fast.

Where do South Africa enterprises learn to become more knowledge intensive at the moment? The answer is: At European Trade Shows. If you are a manufacturer or a potential entrepreneur, start saving up. There are many excellent trade shows throughout the year.

Which Meso-organisations offers the best examples, technology demonstration and training on this? Again, European Universities, Technology Transfer centres and universities. (The US and Canada also provide brilliant services, but it is much harder to access for us). If you cannot find a local expert or academics to help you, reach up to Europe.

What do we have to do? Think of ways to get as many of our entrepreneurs curious or interested in the newer technologies available, and learn from our (larger) competitors. Also, we have to get our universities to be more involved in technology adaptation and participating in new research areas. The academia should focus less on publishing in journals and get involved in real research collaboration that gives our industries (exporting) opportunities and that at the same time address unique needs in our domestic markets.

Oh, and by the way. Start reading up on the “internet of things”. Maybe my next post should focus on that.

 

Notes:

[1]  Our paper will be presented at the International Conference on Manufacturing-Led Growth for Employment and Equality in Johannesburg on the 20th and 21st of May. The paper is titled “Advanced Manufacturing and Jobs in South Africa: An Examination of Perceptions and Trends”.

[2] Such platforms have multiple commercial applications, e.g. composite materials, and exhibit high spill-over effects.

[3] E.g. nanotechnology, biotechnology, chemistry and biology.

[4] Labour, materials, capital goods, energy, etc.

 

Building institutions that supports knowledge flows to industry

It sounds like a cliche to state that manufacturing has changed a lot in the last 30 years. Yet people often say this without thinking of how it has changed. It is not just about the size of our manufacturers, or the increased competition from Asia or elsewhere. It is also not about the sophisticated equipment and the tremendous range of products that are now available to consumers. An important aspect of manufacturing change is the dependence on knowledge from internal and external experts, or Knowledge Intensive Business Services (KIBS). These knowledge experts include engineers, product developers, process experts, industry experts or logistical experts. While in a country like Germany, there are many public, academic and private specialists to go around and assist manufacturers to tweak their processes or solve specific problems, in developing countries we have a bigger challenge. Knowledge intensive services are prone to several market failures, and therefore it is important that we consider the role, importance and challenges that these knowledge services have.

Let me just state upfront that despite my PhD research focusing on the importance of knowledge services in the manufacturing sector, I am hesitant to treat the “knowledge economy” as something separate as it is often done in the South. The increasing importance of many different kinds of knowledge throughout the economy is pervasive. Just ask a commercial farmer in Africa how they have had to change their farming practices in the last 3 decades. It is almost unthinkable that 30 years ago a person could start commercial farming without a tertiary education or at least one highly experienced supervisor. The same goes for manufacturing.

There is a big difference between generic Business Development Services (BDS) and Knowledge Intensive Services. While with BDS our problem is to get good all-rounders to provide services to enterprises where it is very hard to determine the real value of the service offering, in Knowledge Intensive Services the service is very specific to a certain (technical) problem, it is deep knowledge and the value (and cost) is usually very clear. Firms that know what they are doing need knowledge intensive service providers to fill in the gaps where deep knowledge is needed, a BDS provider is typically out of their depth with a manufacturing enterprise that are trying to be competitive.

  • The first challenge we have with intensive or specific knowledge is scale. When just a few manufacturers use more advanced equipment in a country there is a good chance that few service providers, experts or technicians will be available. In market failure terms, this is called an indivisibility (you cant divide the cost of the expert easily between different enterprises, or just take a small piece of the expert). It could also be about scale (not enough business to justify the emergence of a specialized service provider). It is often difficult for manufacturers to coordinate their use of expert service providers, or to coordinate the procurement of similar equipment that makes the development of a pool of service providers possible. This is called a coordination failure and it is pervasive in our developing economies.
  • A second challenge is that many manufacturers are hesitant to search outside their firm. This is often due to costs (which includes the time spent to find the right expert), but also because for so long manufacturers had everything they needed in-house. In South Africa, many of our older firms are hesitant to use “consultants” because they don’t trust them. This could be described as a market failure around asymmetrical information or adverse selection.

One way to increase the availability of knowledge intensive service provision in a developing country is through the connection between academic institutions, public funded industry support programmes and industries themselves. This requires that technical or knowledge experts are able to be released from certain teaching or research duties to work with firms. This is often very difficult due to the high student load in many of our African universities. I am often astounded by the world class research capacity and expertise that are hidden inside universities that are desperately needed in industry. This failure has many names, but in market failure terms it is called a public goods failure, in other words, public funds are not used to overcome persistent market failures in industry.

A second and parallel strategy should be to make sure that the Meso level organizations (which include universities and higher education institutions) are concentrating on overcoming the market failures in industries and in firms. In developing countries these Meso organizations, meant to address specific performance issues at firm or industry level, are more focused on securing and spending national (or international) funding than to become valuable and responsive to the needs of industry. To get the Meso organizations focused on the plight of firms requires an industrial and modernization policy that is focused on building the right economic and industry supporting institutions – this cannot be done just by merely implementing projects or programmes – it must be systemic. With right I mean relevant and equipped with high level experts that understand and can relate to the issues in industry.

This phenomena of the disconnect between public knowledge services and the need of industry is more widespread than you would think in our developing countries. It is a public good failure that undermines the well being of our economies. I believe this is also an ideological failure, because governments tries to use their funds to provide incentives or prioritize certain kinds of behavior both in the public sector and in the private sector. Instead of responding to what is emerging or what is needed in the private sector, the public sector tries to prioritize what it believes to be ideal. The result is that the firms that are most able to create jobs and wealth are left without public support.

In Mesopartner we will be working on consolidating our experience in bottom up industrial policy. We will work closely with research organizations and development partners around the world to strengthen and develop a body of knowledge on how some of these issues can be addressed in the developing world. We do this by developing a theme where instruments, concepts, theories and practice can be integrated. If you are interested in participating in this process, or have experience to share, please give us a shout.

I have previously written about this some years ago in the post about the service sector  and about the increased importance of knowledge intensity here.

Moving from generic to specific and then onto systemic

When working with development organizations in the mesolevel we often find that their programmes are very generic. The same can be said of the findings of many diagnosis. The result is that firms do not really use the services of these organizations, because the value add and the impact of the services are not really clear.

For me there should always be a movement from the generic (e.g. the foundry sector is not competitive) towards the specific (e.g. the foundry industry is not competitive because it lacks capacity to do good front end engineering and design). After we have developed a sense of some specific issues that are affecting the performance of firms, there are two things we have to do.

Firstly, we want to try and figure out if there is something that we can do at a more systemic level to try and influence the specific issues. With systemic I mean that instead of addressing a particular issue repeatedly at various firms, see if there are other ways to achieve the same outcome. An example would be instead of only offering a design service to firms, make sure that the university curricula includes sufficient content dealing with design. Of course, we should always strive to have multiple interventions to address a particular issue.

Secondly, we should verify whether our specific findings are unique to the firms we have diagnosed or engaged with. For instance, and food initiative run by a university might find that the private sector is affected by a lack of a particular kind of testing lab. Then instead of designing a solution just for a limited number of producers, the university should check whether similar firms in other industries (related and not even related) are facing the same constraints. It may just be possible to design a solution that is useful to a much broader target group, making the solution more sustainable and more relevant to the private sector.

From my experience of working within many different value chains is that there are many issues that are treated as being unique (or specific) to a particular value chain that are in fact affecting many different kinds of enterprises. The South African Industrial Policy framework for instance is designed around many different sub-sectors, with many different interventions implemented by different organizations and programmes that are actually not unique to a particular sub-sector. This is expensive and also not really systemic, these interventions are not permanently changing the meso level in South Africa or the service offerings of meso organizations such as universities and other development programmes. The South African manufacturing sector is struggling with low volume, outdated designs and rapidly increasing costs across the board. I imagine that it should be possible to based on the insights from the different sub sectors to design much better programmes that are cross cutting over many different sub sectors, and that from the start are designed to improve the service offerings from meso organizations to firms.

Help – the industry I am working with is uncompetitive and many do not care

In most strategic management textbooks 4 generic factors are identified that can be used to build competitive advantage: efficiency, quality, innovation and customer responsiveness. These four factors are highly interrelated, as an improvement in customer responsiveness for instance could result in improved quality and better efficiencies. By addressing these four factors a business can reduce its costs and can create a differentiated position in a market. Let me briefly expand on the four factors.

Generic competitive advantage

  • Superior efficiency: a manufacturer converts inputs into outputs. Inputs are basic elements such as land, capital, labor,raw materials or knowledge. Firms that manage this conversion by constantly trying to find better ways to reduce costs, improve throughput and reduce wastage tend to be able to be more price competitive.
  • Superior quality: means that products are reliable and that they can do the job that they were designed for, meeting the specifications and performance requirements of customers. In most cases it is difficult to ensure consistent and reliable products without a system in place to control quality
  • Superior innovation: This is about the novelty of the products, process or services of the firm. It is not just about the great design of the product, but about the total offering and how customers can interact with the firm. Thus it includes how the company thinks about its own structures, internal systems, relations with markets and customers, use of technology and product development.
  • Superior responsiveness to customers: A firm that is highly responsive to its customer not only meets their requirements, it strives to anticipate and exceed those requirements. Although this could be about flexibility to respond to customers demand, in most cases it is not. It could simply be to find a way to respond the needs of customers in a creative way.

Enough of the strategy lesson. Back to the real world where we are all trying to use our own limited resources to promote particular industries or regions.

Here are the questions that keeps me awake about this project:

What if the industry that I am working with do not seem very eager to develop any real advantage around any of these four factors?

What must I do to improve the competitiveness of the region if the firms do not seem to even care about their own competitiveness?

For the last few weeks I have been wondering about these questions as I visit a range of manufacturers as part of a process to stimulate a regional innovation system in an industrial area. By visiting many firms in this region I noticed a big gap between those that are  are differentiated or excellent and the rest. The gap is so big that I sometimes wonder if it ever would be possible to move or support firms to cross over the empty space between those that can be described as “excellent” versus the “average”. Knowing that I only have a limited time, and the organization that I am supporting (An University) only has limited resources, I started worrying about helping all the firms. But this is not possible nor is it desirable.

All the average firms can offer many arguments for their current state. They lay the blame at policy uncertainty, high costs of borrowing, crime, political interference, expensive employees, low skills and many more. Many would say that they are component manufacturers that depend on the strategies and innovations of their customers (we just make what they want how they want it). Very few firms ever acknowledge that their current state is a reflection of past strategic choices taken deliberately or that played out to the current status because of not making decisions.

Yet, almost each of the excellent firms that we come across in our fieldwork focused on getting some basic principles. Many started monitoring their costs and wastage to try and improve their efficiencies. They focused on equipping their staff to understand the business, the products and the process, resulting in lower failures and higher quality. They spoke to their customers to find out how they can offer better services and products, even when they were just manufacturers of components used in someone else product. They focused on the quality of their products by looking at the quality of their process, their equipment, their systems and their management.

Those that are excellent are not necessarily better educated, better off financially, or better engineers. They just took charge despite being in the same economy, the same reason and even the same sector, with all the same environmental factors that the average firms use as a reason to do nothing. Sometimes the firms that are now excellent where started by disgruntled employees quitting the average firms. Or in other cases, the excellent firms were started by people from outside the sector moving in with a different perspective and approach.

What bothers me is the way the public sector responds to the manufacturing sector with their funding, support interventions and incentives. The strange thing is that most public sector interventions are aimed at the average or below average performers. It is almost as if the logic is that they are weaker and therefore they need protection and special care. Well, if economics is the study of how humans allocate scarce resources, then we should be very worried about directing too much of our scarce resources to firms that cannot use the resources the society endow them with (capital, labour, land and knowledge). Of course there are exceptions, but the problem is finding a fair way of deciding when it is justified to protect a firm and when it is best to let a struggling firm fold in so that the resources can be redeployed to other people that are able to use these same resources in a better way.

So what can we do when we are faced with this situation? Here are some of the ideas that we are working on now.

Lets say, of the 50 manufacturers we want to work with, 5 stand out as trying harder than the others. Perhaps another 5 or so are ambitious but they just don’t seem to know where to start, who to work with or where to go. We argued that we start with the first 5 (already good) and the 2nd five (the almost there). Then we invited any of the willing from the rest of the group (3 more stepped to the front). Now we have a core group to work with. Now we are trying to find ways to better connect them with each other, trying to get them to identify their own and their common competencies and opportunities. We have arranged a few pilots to support some of these firms to try and improve their own performance, and we have arranged some events with experts to discuss common issues.

But we have to remind ourselves that we cannot create competitive firms if they do not at least work on the four generic advantages outlined earlier. We cannot improve the competitiveness of the region without being able to show firms that are excellent. Trying to get these generic factors under their control is a minimum requirement. We should never use public resources to support firms that are not serious about improving their overall performance. Furthermore, everything that we do should become public knowledge in this industry and perhaps in the downstream customers, perhaps one of the other firms or even a customer decides to step up and form part of our initiative.

  • Have you also had an experience like this? The firms you are expected to work with just don’t seem bothered by their current status or improving their game?
  • Hey, what else should I do?
  • How do we use the principles of innovation systems and good development practice to get firms in a region to work together to improve their competitive performance in order to improve the economics of the region?

Supporting business that creates wealth and growth should be our main priority

I see that in the USA there is a similar debate as here in South Africa about whether government should support small firms or growing firms.
Andrew Hargadon wrote a brilliant post on the debate that was brought to my attention by Tim Kastelle. Hargadon argues that hindsight is often mistaken for foresight. He explains that many small firms stay small for many years before they grow, and that it is hard to predict which will grow, which will just survive and which would fail. From my own business and consulting experience I support his view and have seen on many occasions that it sometimes takes a change of ownership or management to get a small enterprise onto a growth path. But sometimes we are so obsessed with the romantic idea of an entrepreneur fighting an honorable fight against market forces and the onerous framework conditions that we miss the bigger picture. Some people are good at starting enterprises, others are good at growing enterprises, other good at maintaining an enterprises. Some will just never be able to do it no matter how much support you provide (or waste). Most people will make better employees than entrepreneurs.

The myth that small enterprises drives growth and employment is an old one, one that is firmly in the rooted in minds of policy makers and development practitioners here in RSA and in our region. There seems to be a confusion between correlation and causation. Even if statistics shows that 60% of people in RSA are employed in small enterprises (thus a correlation seem to exist between small firms and employment) it does not tell us anything about causation (does small firms create employment, or does more employment lead to more small firms being created). Research by many reputable scholars have shown that small enterprises hardly drives growth, but that it often responds to growth; it is more likely that larger better resourced companies will drive growth and efficiency in the economy, with ecosystems of small firms emerging around them providing specialized and also some general services.

For instance, the reputable scholar Thorsten Beck argues that the dynamism of enterprises is more important than the size of small firms in the total economy. I first came across Becks work while doing my PhD research (he has since moved from the Worlbank to Tilburg University). Beck has done many cross-country micro economic studies and argues that:“Policy efforts targeted at SMEs have often been justified with arguments that

(1) SMEs are an engine of innovation and growth and

(2) they help reduce poverty because they are labor-intensive and thus stimulate job growth, but

(3) they are constrained by institutional and market failures.

Cross-country, country-level, and microeconomic studies, however, do not support these claims. One study shows that, although faster-growing economies have a higher share of SME employment in their manufacturing sectors, it is not the size of this segment that drives growth“.

The full report can be found here

Here in South Africa development practitioners have the challenge that we have to pursue objectives that are in conflict.
Everyone seems to agree that we should create more employment, as the waste of human capital in our country is just socially not sustainable nor justifiable. Yet, we are constrained in that we cannot always support those firms that are more likely to create employment because of the race of the owners, or for other demographic criteria or preconditions. Sadly, many entrepreneurs that can help us absorb the unemployed have left, or have shifted into industries where they don’t have to rely so much on low skilled workers. Many have simply taken up jobs in the corporate or service sectors (people like me and many others I know). The current legislative environment just does not make it easy or attractive enough for people to start new firms or expand existing ones. In fact, many people that have the capacity to start medium sized firms are investing their money elsewhere. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not against the principle of equity enshrined in our constitution, I strongly support this. I also believe that labor should be paid fairly in a just relationship. The current labour and BEE environment just does not make for an environment where people will start firms or spin-offs that will address our primary problem of unemployment.

I believe that having a job goes a long way to equipping (black or white, male or female, young or not-so-young) employees to start a business at some point when they have gained sufficient technical AND market experience. Employment experienced and education will still do much more for sustainable black economic empowerment than any other measure. Furthermore, a focus on employment (no matter what the profile of the employer is) will also increase our tax base so that we can do more to develop our country. I will not get into my feelings about too few taxpayers supporting a too big social spend and government here.

Whether big or small, I put my money behind family owned businesses (Yes, I have a small bias). They somehow have the ability to consider both short term but also long term priorities at the same time. Even if they don’t make decisions fast, or if they sometimes appear to be conservative, I found family owned businesses are more likely to continuously invest in better equipment, in developing capacity, and in securing new markets. Family owned businesses makes for more stable employment, and generally they are more aware of the social needs of their employees. But these are also the kind of firms that are least likely to give up shares and management positions if it does not make long term business sense, thus Black Economic Empowerment policies and many conditional support incentives actually undermines this (often unrecognized) backbone of our economy.

What most people choose to ignore is that 3 drivers of costs of business are escalating very rapidly. These are:

  1. cost of raw materials. We buy smaller volumes and pay more compared to other international markets, with many countries even subsidizing access to raw materials.
  2. cost of energy. Our energy cost has increased faster than firms could upgrade, so we are far from efficient and thus at disadvantage. Municipalities further charge double and triple digit margins on top of the official electricity rates. Lastly, those that want to expand often cannot secure or afford access to electricity due to more than a decade of underinvestment in the grid at municipal level
  3. cost of labour. Many other factors are making wages too low for workers to live on (like the cost of transport), while raising the cost component of labour in business without increasing productivity resulting in South African enterprises being uncompetitive. Most employers when they do agree to wage increases simply reduce their staff, because other types of productivity improvement simply takes too long to yield results.

There is only one way that I know of to overcome these 3 cost drivers, and that is innovation at all levels of the enterprise (product, process and business model innovation). We also need social innovation, especially with regards to finding better ways at training, re-training or current workforce and the unemployed.

I can see in many sectors that those entrepreneurs that can create businesses that mainly employes skilled or educated employees are able to compete domestically and internationally. Those enterprises that depend on low skilled workers will simply struggle to compete, their costs are just to high and more and more of them are failing. Larger firms with access to capital and debt are more likely to be able to balance the investments in capital and labour that is required to be profitable in our economy, while smaller firms are struggling to balance this while raising capital and exploring new markets at the same time. The transaction costs for smaller firms to experiment until the find a workable business model in many instances is just to high. This is visible in the popularity of franchises where an entrepreneur buys into a proven business model and where the costs of experimenting with the business model is shared by many franchisees. (I wish we had something similar in manufacturing).

From my research over the last 3 years into innovation in industries I can say with confidence that our smaller manufacturers are hardly investing in Research and Development, mainly because they are under such strong cost and competitive pressure. Those smaller firms that do innovate formally often do this on contract, meaning they are paid by larger firms to do so. Larger firms that are active internationally are more likely to pay for R & D in order to drive down costs while creating new markets and new products. In doing so they support a wide range of smaller firms that provide experts services, specialized components or other intermediary inputs needed by the larger firms.

In the end, we have to direct our funds to those that can create employment, create wealth, create new markets and create new kinds of jobs. We should assess which firms we support by looking at the multiplier effects and the spillovers. We should support those firms that optimally and responsibly use existing resources, whether it be financial, natural or human resources. We must try to support the areas where dynamism already exist to start with, and then we have to try and support dynamism elsewhere. But we should not assume that our large and established smaller enterprises are able to develop all by themselves. The current focus is too much on small and not enough on multipliers and dynamism in the whole economy.

For me all other priorities come second to the objectives of growth and wealth creation, as we cannot achieve all of our countries many priorities at the same time. Growth will absorb more people, will attract more investment, will create new markets, new skills and new opportunities. Wealth creation is as important for employees as it is for investors, entrepreneurs, managers and also the government.

We have to send a strong message to ALL entrepreneurs that we value their investment, their energy and their attempts to create new markets. But we cannot help all of them, and by assisting some of them based on social criteria will not take us toward our countries biggest crises, the unemployed youth, nor will it allow us to optimally leverage the wisdom and experience of our older generation of technicians, engineers, managers and academics no matter what their demographic profile.

Supporting business that creates wealth and responsible growth should be our main priority.

Localisation and building domestic manufacturing capacity

At the moment I am spending most of my time working with the more traditional manufacturing sector in South Africa. Traditional apparently means non-advanced, but it would be a mistake to think that because a particular object (like a metal casting) has been made for 8000 years that there is nothing advanced about it. For instance, in a typical foundry you find very different technical, engineering and management capacities that must be combined in order to make metal components for very demanding customers.

Localisation in South Africa (and in other places like the US) means to bring orders that have gone offshore back into the country. It often involves trying to rebuild manufacturing capacity that once existed in a country, but that originally developed under completely different economic conditions. For instance, 30 years ago many manufacturers grew in South Africa, starting very small and growing over time. About 10 years ago these manufacturers closed, or moved offshore. In the meantime global market consolidated and found low cost producers. To now try and create this capacity again is not an easy task. Firstly, you don’t have 20 years for experimentation in technologies, business models and market segments. Secondly, customers already now know what they want, and this usually includes a proven product at a competitive price. The new enterprise must hit the ground running with proven technology, management and adequate resources. This means that you have to develop both local producers and their supporting institutions, service providers and their markets at the same time. Bear in mind that their competitors overseas are benefiting from this same ecosystem developing naturally.

Localization is seen by some as the opposite of globalization and outsourcing. But buying from a local manufacturer is still outsourcing . As far as localization as the antidote to globalization is concerned, this is not correct, as localized products often enter world markets again, as does local knowledge workers that are now mobile due to their enhanced expertise. Localization is about creating local manufacturing capacity. It is about more than just helping local entrepreneurs start firms – it is often about finding or developing unique local capacity that meets very specific local requirements. It is therefore often driven by public policy- however the most successful localization is often driven by businesses wanting certain suppliers or competencies nearby.

Perhaps another way of looking at localization could be to see it as part of a natural cycle. Products are made locally at $x and a small volume supported by a limited local market. Over time standards, low cost production methods evolve, market consolidate and production concentrates in a few places able to reach scale and efficiency. Now the numbers are high – new entrants struggle to enter as existing firms ramp up efficiency. Right about then flexibility is lost, management becomes expensive, and you may be sharing production facilities with current and future competitors. In the meantime, products evolve, markets and applications differentiate, and suddenly there is a need for more specific production to meet a specific market. this is where a local producer with the right technology, people and business model could gain a foothold (if only they knew about the opportunity). The cycle might just start all over again. This is just one simple example. I acknowledge that many countries have not been able to recapture orders once they are lost to offshore competitors – partly because several economies have also progressed up the value chain. But for developing countries, evolving up a value chain is a very painful process that is often not possible.

From the demand side we have a different perspective. Multinationals or large local manufacturers wanting to localize typically have an existing production system, or they are expanding local capacity. They have advanced or well developed management systems, markets, products and supply chains. Often, buying local is not first choice as they might have invested already in capacity elsewhere, although localization is frequently a requirement of developing country procurement policies. So they first localize non-core activities, the crumbs or components where few things can go wrong. For local manufacturers, this is the toughest place to enter, as these basic components are often like commodities – they are standard, and hence competitors have already reached scale and efficiency levels that are hard to beat.

For buyers, another problem is that local manufacturing capacity is hard to identify and secure. Existing manufacturers in developing countries are either undergoing BOOM or BUST. The boomers are just to busy in markets and products they already understand, and the busters just cant be trusted. Lastly, large multinationals that tries to localize production very often draw their domestic engineering, management and other skills directly from the very limited skills pool that exists locally, attracting skills from the local manufacturing sector that is hard to replace.

So some insights:

a) firstly, don’t let your local manufacturing sector collapse, even if they are not entirely local or entirely politically correct

b) don’t assume that multinationals can easily do business with local manufacturers, don’t depend on checklists.

c) don’t assume that all that your local manufacturers need are some orders from the big firms or government – they are most likely behind in multiple areas, such as skills, working capital, engineering technology and capacity

d) it is not just about technology. Large firms giving technology to local firms is not the solution. Local firms must get a deeper understanding into the market, the drivers of change, the drivers of performance and manufacturing management methods.

e) for a local manufacturer to grow, take on new (demanding) customers, add additional shifts, manage a busier schedule, recruit and train more staff – all these things require change. Remember to assess the readiness of local entrepreneurs to change, invest and expand.

 

Lastly, localization should not be  about import substitution at all cost, because this reduces the buy local decision to a costing issue. Isolating local manufacturers from international markets will not help in the long run. Rather, the focus must be to connect local manufacturers with global markets, knowledge pools, trends and developments.

If you really want to develop your local manufacturing sector, start with the buyers and understand their needs. Understand their business risks, their cost drivers, their incentives to expand and their means to support local manufacturing. Then find out which experts they bring into their operations, what challenges they had to create and maintain their own systems – chances are that what is an inconvenience to a large firm could be a complete obstacle to a local firm. Then articulate these messages, trends and projects clearly to local producers.

I have found that the main issue for large firms wanting to localize is not price – it is reliability and flexibility of local supply. It is dedication to getting the product right at the right quality, on time. And it is also a supply chain of local engineering and management skills.

Oh, did I mention that small firms also want to localize, not just the big firms? More about that next time.