Assisting firms to improve their Research and Development activities

In my daily work I deal with two kinds of manufacturers: those who have formal or informal research and development activities, and those who don’t. While there are certain tendencies for some industries to be more R & D intensive than others, I found some very innovative firms even in traditional sectors.

The first step to assist firms to improve firms to depend their R & D activities is to disconnect R & D from product development that responds to complaints, suggestions or requests from customers. While in some firms product development is the result of R & D, in most, product development is not purposeful, pro-active or inventive. I am always surprised to realize how dependent many firms are on their customers for specifications, product or ideas, especially in more traditional industries.

So if you disconnect R & D from responding to customers product demands then what do you connect it to?
From my experience, I found that establishing a cross functional team within the organization that has a mandate to question anything, any process, any routine, or that can investigate any problem is a good start. Thus I try to connect R & D firstly with reducing internal costs, solving internal products, mastering existing technology and knowledge domains. The key is to get very different people together, not based on their rank, but based on their curiosity and different expertise.

Next step is to then start thinking about the science behind current products, processes and core assumptions in the firm. Are therw substitute materials, solutions or processes for what is used now in the firm? Can we create some experiments, or can we explore alternative ways to achieve the same results? The purpose here is not to successfully develop new products, but rather to broaden the knowledge used within the firm not only about is core processes, but also about alternative markets, applications and production approaches. If you are lucky enough to have a great team together, then you can even play with questions such as “what else can we make with what we have?” or “if we partnered with a firm nearby, what crazy stuff could we make together?” But, I am sad to acknowledge, this does not happen often.

Only when we have a core team in the manufacturer curious about different ways of doing things, different ways solutions are used, alternative ways of creating solutions – only then do we look at new ways of pleasing current and existing customers with innovative new products. At this point the firm is inquisitive enough to value conducting research into new ways of doing things. We are ready to consider how a more formal Research and Development approach might look.

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Shawn Cunningham

I am passionate about how organisations and institutions change in developing and transitioning countries. I essentially work between organisations, communities, industries and experts.

0 thoughts on “Assisting firms to improve their Research and Development activities”

  1. Hi, Apologies for the formatting of this blog post. I tried to do the post from my mobile device and could not get the tags and categories to work! Will try to master this before the next post.

  2. Shawn, interesting reading! I like the idea of putting people together who have curiosity, vigour to explore and the energy to brutally debate innovation in a sector to come up with new products, processes or business models. And you’re right, so many “innovations” are in response to critique and not always because of the innate need/want to innovate. I have bult this thinking into a blog of my own (wink, wink: advertising:-) dealing with the latest Industrial Policy Action Plan document from the DTI available at:

    For the full IPAP document, go to:

    1. Hi Larry,
      Thank you for your comment. Free advertising of innovative technology transfer centres like yours is always welcome.

      Perhaps I should explain to my readers that Larry manages the Agrifood Technology Station at CPUT in Cape Town. You have to see his reconfigurable food production pilot plant to understand why I am excited about what Larry is doing for the food sector in terms of innovation. Larry, when can I come and taste those chocolate goodies you were bragging about some time ago?

      Larry, perhaps you should also announce the Food Innovation Symposium here!

      Best wishes,


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