Categories
Complexity and Evolutionary Thinking Industrial Policy Process and Change Facilitation

Industry development under conditions of complexity

Most economic development projects have a tendency to separate analysis from intervention or implementation. This follows on an engineering approach where you must first understand a problem or issue before you can design interventions which is then logically followed by implementation and later on evaluation. I will not now go off on why this logic is questionable as I have written about this before and we have dedicated the Systemic-Insight.com website to this topic.

But complexity thinking is challenging this norm of separating analysis and intervention.

Auwhere to gothors such as Snowden argues that under conditions of complexity, the best approach is to diagnose through intervention, which means that there is no real separation between diagnosis and intervention. Practically, you might have to spend some days and a little bit of effort to analyze who is interested in a particular issue so that you know where to start, but you have to recognize that even asking some simple questions is in itself already an intervention. Furthermore, the objective of working under conditions of complexity is to introduce more variety so that different approaches to overcoming constraints can be tried out simultaneously. This means that small portfolios of experiments must be developed and supported, trying many different ways to solve a problem. Many of these are guaranteed to fail, but new novelty will also arise. The health of a system depends on more options being proven viable. Strong alignment of interests, priorities and interventions are actually unhealthy for a system in the long run.

I’ve had this discussion many times with fellow practitioners in the last years and usually at some point somebody would say “but not everything is complex”. I agree. They would argue that there are definite casual relations between for instance education and economic development. Well, this may be true in some places. However, whenever a government (or a donor) decides that a particular sector or industry requires support it should assume that the issue is much more complex than it may appear, otherwise the industry actors and supporting organizations and demanding clients would have sorted things out by themselves.

The idea that diagnosis takes place during intervention has many detractors, despite the fact that many strong economic development organizations intuitively follows this process logic of working with diverse stakeholders in an ongoing process. Here is a short list of some of the detractors and their main reason for resisting such a process approach:

  • Large consulting firms: They would fight this approach as processes are much more difficult to quote and manage than a clearly defined project. Furthermore, this kind of approach depends on more expensive multidisciplinary experts that require a combination of technical, facilitation, change and business skills. The number of people that can support such a process are few and far in between.
  • The public sector: To overcome constraints created by complexity requires that dissent be nurtured and premature alignment be avoided. This is also risky for the public sector as things may not be so neat nor supportive of past policies and decisions. Furthermore, when more options are created it is not certain which firms will really take up the solutions – meaning that in a country like South Africa with strong benefit bias this is too risky, as preferred candidates might not be the beneficiaries of public support.
  • Donors and development organizations: Simple cause and effect interventions that depends on controlling certain inputs in order to benefit specific target groups still dominate the logic of donors. Therefore a process that is not specific, and that explores different alternatives may not be appealing to donors. Furthermore, donors are expected to be able to very precisely report not only in inputs, but also on impact. A process that has multiple shifting goal posts makes planning and resource management very difficult. However, many examples exist of donor supported projects that are very open to this approach, but this is mainly the prerogative of the programme managers deployed into the field – it is not systemic.
  • The private sector: Yes, even firms may resist an open ended and exploratory approach. One reason is that firms try to push the problems experienced in the private sector back onto the public sector (blame and responsibility shifting). An exploratory approach puts much more onus on the private sector to not only contribute, but to be open for alternatives and to then actively pursue opportunities that arise. Secondly, the incumbents in the private sector sometimes profits from a disorderly system. Many existing firms will resist newcomers trying different things and trying to create new markets, as this disrupts the way things are done at the moment. In a complexity sensitive approach we have to on purpose introduce novelty into the existing structures, and this means challenging some of the dominant views and agreements about what is going on, what must be done and why nothing has changed. This is very unsettling for the existing actors.
  • Top management in an organization: Management science in itself assumes many casual relations. For instance, strategy development typically starts with defining a vision and objectives, and then making sure that everyone is aligned and committed to these goals. As one of my favorite strategy David Maister argued  “strategy means saying no”. This means that resources are dedicated to a few specific areas in the belief that addressing these would have predictable and desirable effects.

Now I must state that in more ordered domains, where there is less complexity, many of the arguments outlined above are valid. In a small organization with limited resources priorities must be set. Governments cannot help everyone, so somehow a selection must be made. However, I believe that industry development is in many cases complex also because it is so hard to see how unpredictable effects will affect an industry.

I am grateful that I work with organizations that are willing to embark on industry development or institutional development processes that are more complexity sensitive. I believe that such an approach is particularly important for innovation systems promotion and for industrial policy. I am surprised at how many manufacturers and universities have agreed to embrace a more complexity sensitive approach to development, strategy formation and developing new services/products. All involved have been amazed at the early results this far, as these processes typically unleash a lot of energy and creativity by different stakeholders that in the past were more than willing to just observe from a distance what was going on.
Categories
About the future Addressing persistent market failure Industrial Policy Knowledge Intensive Business Services Private Sector Development Research and development Technology and innovation management Thinking out loud

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.

 

Categories
Addressing persistent market failure Complexity and Evolutionary Thinking From the field Industrial Policy Process and Change Facilitation Thinking out loud

Absorbed into the networks behind the systems we see

Its been a while since I have last posted here. The reason for my absence is two-fold.

Firstly, I am busy with a course offered by Coursera and the University of Michigan about Social Network Analysis (SNA). My business partners and one of our associates in Mesopartner are participating in this course. The course is 9 weeks long and I must admit that it is taking much more of my time than I originally anticipated.

The second reason I am hardly online is that the industrial policy in South Africa is starting to have positive effects on local industry. As I work mainly with the manufacturing sector on topics like innovation systems, industrialization, identifying and addressing market failures, and the competitiveness of regions, it means that there is suddenly an upsurge in demand. The demand is lead by state owned companies that are suddenly obliged to procure manufactured content locally, and by local industries that realize that years of underinvestment and fighting to survive against cheap and sometimes lower quality goods have left many sub-sector uncompetitive.

But these two reasons are also having an effect on each other. I have been applying many of the principles and tools of Social Network Analysis in my diagnostic work for the last 2 years, and for the last year I have been using SNA as my main diagnosis instrument. This recent course have simply forced me to read up more and more on many of the theories and the concepts behind the instruments I have been using. I am still trying to figure out how to do this kind of diagnosis fast, and how to teach these instruments and theories to the practitioners that we (Mesopartner) are working with around the world. At this moment the diagnosis that I am doing in valve, pump, tooling, automotive and industrial equipment is still slow and it takes all my attention.

What is the benefit of taking a SNA approach to sub-sector development?

  1. Well, firstly, a network diagnostic very quickly reveals whether there is a cluster or even a value chain. We often assume that these constructs are real, but in the last few years we have learned that just because all the actors that should be in a chain are there doesn’t mean that a value chain exists. Same goes for a cluster, just because all the elements are there doesn’t mean there is a dense network of cooperation, knowledge exchange and systemic competitiveness.
  2. Secondly, a network view assists with understanding the deeper relationships, trust patterns and information flows in a small part of a real system. These relationships makes it possible to predict how information flows, who the thought leaders are and how influential institutions, leaders, officials and business people are. This is directly relevant for my work with innovation systems.
  3. Lastly, Social Network Analysis also highlights how complex even a single link in a value chain can be. When you look at the spider web of relations, ownership structures, communication channels and knowledge spillovers, then you see how traditional development interventions have completely missed the leverage points.

All I can do at this moment is to commit to blog more frequently once this course is done. I will share some of the results of the industrial diagnosis that I am currently busy with in a few weeks time. Below I will give a sneak preview of the network map of the valve manufacturing cluster in South Africa. You will immediately see that some manufacturers (in red) and some foundries (in blue) are more connected than others. The yellow dots are valve manufacturers that are not yet part of the formal valve cluster structure. Hardly any additional analysis is needed to show that the more connected firms are the ones we should work with.

 

Cluster drawing 4

However, the additional analysis that we can run on this cluster further narrows the choices of whom to work with to get both the highest impact (in terms of both ability to grow their business, increase employment and meet customers needs) and in terms of getting the highest demonstration and spill over effects. The latter is important, because when you want to upgrade an industry you should prioritize firms that are able to create positive spillovers and that others are willing to follow. To do this kind of analysis we need a combination of qualitative and quantitative information, and we use specialized software applications. But more about this in a future post!

Categories
Addressing persistent market failure From the field Industrial Policy Knowledge Intensive Business Services Private Sector Development

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.

 

 

Categories
Industrial Policy Private Sector Development Process and Change Facilitation Promoting Innovation Systems

My activities in the last months

So what have I been up to in the last few months?

At the moment I am working with several industry organizations and development institutions in South Africa on topics that are all interrelated around the topic of upgrading of our manufacturing sector. This involves working both on the softer issues such as facilitation of processes, building trust, identifying patterns, mobilizing stakeholders and lobbying for change to both government and the private sector. Another dimension of this work is to assist meso level organizations created to stimulate upgrading and competitiveness of industries to design better and more relevant programmes, developed organizational plans, and diagnosing industries to find systemic intervention points. I am involved in several cluster development programmes, and I am also working quite a bit with universities to better respond to the (often unarticulated) needs of industries. Lastly, I am assisting several large international and national buyers to develop their South African supply chains. This work is partly fueled by the public sectors increased emphasis on localisation.

For me all of this can be summarized under the heading of upgrading innovation systems, and building new industrial competencies. Sometimes I describe it as modernizing industries, or to stimulate technological upgrading of industries and regions. My customers do not often use these words.I thought it would be interesting to perhaps share with you how some of my current customers describe the work I am doing. I will not share their details due to the sensitivity of the work I am sometimes involved in.

The universities I work with describe my work as :

  • stimulating industry- academia relations around upgrading and regional innovation,
  • facilitating the improvement of technology transfer,
  • developing industry partnerships, research strategies and applied research programmes. This involves improving innovation within the academia
  • improving innovation systems that the university forms part of by designing appropriate support programmes

The industry development organizations I work with describe my work as:

  • facilitating the improved competitiveness of industries,
  • facilitating change processes in industry in order to unlock new markets and improve competitiveness,
  • developing public sector programmes that are responsive to the needs of industries.
  • High level policy advocacy and industry partnerships

For the government officials that I work with my work is:

  • developing industry – government partnerships,
  • supporting the development of local industries,
  • brokering partnerships,
  • shaping policy based on industry insight and
  • developing practical development programmes.

Why do I share this with you? The insight for me is that I am using a limited number of tools (mainly facilitation skills, some insight into manufacturing and technology transfer, insights into innovation systems, organizational development and a fearless approach to engaging with industry leaders) to work with a largely overlapping set of stakeholders.

Although I think that I am basically doing the same kind of work, my customers describes my work in completely different ways, even if ALL my current customers have the same objectives (they all want to improve manufacturing competitiveness and grow the local industries).

This work is all based on process consulting and I am very happy that I have a complementary set of customers that are all eager to work together to achieve our common goals. The work is very intensive and I am also grateful that I have contracts that have sufficient time and sufficient flexibility in so that my work can be supportive and responsive to the people I work with.

 

Note 1: Right at the moment I hardly work for any donors agencies in South Africa, mainly because private sector development and especially innovation system promotion in South Africa is not very high on their agendas. I do however assist with capacity building, coaching and programme design work occasionally.

Note 2: One important contract is with GFA on behalf of GIZ where I am supporting several technology stations at universities to improve their technological services to the industries they work with. This work is included in the descriptions above about the work I do for universities.

Note 3: The work I am currently doing is all possible due to the experience I have gained by working for organizations such as the GIZ (then GTZ) on issues such as innovation systems, university industry relations and local/regional economic development.

Categories
Addressing persistent market failure Industrial Policy Private Sector Development Process and Change Facilitation Promoting Value Chains Sustainable Economic Development

There is more value to the value chain than adding value to products

I am supporting value chain practitioners in various programmes where I am coaching, teaching, supporting, pushing and pulling experts. This is one of the perks of my job as I get to look over the shoulders of practitioners working all around the world on commodity, agricultural, manufacturing and service value chains.

While marking some assignments for a course I am tutoring for the ILO I realized that many practitioners are trapped in a particular chain, just like the actors that they are trying to empower. With trapped, I mean that they are working with the actors and the chain for the benefit of the chain. They completely miss the broader impact of their work. (I know that this is often more the fault of the people who design programmes, more about this elsewhere in my blogs).

Let me explain.

For me a value chain is something we construct so that we can understand a part of a sub-system. If you are diagnosing a tomato value chain then it is true that you are getting a deeper understanding of the tomato system. But you are also gaining an insight into an agricultural system, a regional system of stakeholders and communities, but also an insight into the national or maybe even global economy. While some value chains exists in a very formal way, with contracts linking the different actors, most value chains can rather be described as temporary social phenomena. Temporary because they tend to change over time.

Back to my main argument. While it is true that value chains are known by their end products or markets, there is more to a value chain than just the conversion stages of a product/service. Value chains show us how an economic system works. It show us how responsive institutions and supporting organizations and indeed a whole society is towards economic activities of a certain kind. Value chains also tell us some fluffy yet important things about the society it is framed by. It tell us something about the social relations, the search costs (finding people to do business with), the social capital (how well we trust each other, how easily we collaborate), the enabling environment, and the returns on investment and effort in different parts of the system.

So if we find that tomato farmers are not very sophisticated, that they have poor market relations, that entry barriers are very low hence nobody has an incentive to invest, that suppliers are dishonest, that there are some new market niches developing but that nobody knows, that intermediaries have disproportionate power; I am not surprised at all. In fact, your findings are rather typical, even predictable in some sectors. What I am surprised by is if you treat this like it is a unique finding contained only to the tomato farming sector. The chance that these characteristics are contained only to those involved in the tomato chain is rather slim. This is the real risk of having a too narrow product focus.

Yes. Value chains are known by their end markets or products. But no, we are not locked into a product. We want to understand the system better so that we can support the emergence of institutions, market systems and interventions that make the whole system work better. Those issues that I outlined before in my tomato example can be verified in the sectors or crops around it. In my experience, many crops or business sectors sometimes have similar challenges. Therefore instead of trying to work at a low scale with some tomato farmers, you could possible be working with 10 crop types in a region, involving 1000s of farmers, and maybe a dozen supporting institutions. Few extension services for instance focus on one crop, they often handle a variety of crops, animals and markets. So you have to try and understand what each kind of economy activity (like farming with tomatoes) have in common with other business types or farms, and then what is unique. When you do this you often find that the actors in the chain have far more in common than the product or crop. They could all be equally unskilled, equally under-capitalised, equally vulnerable to market fluctuations, equally exposed to poor contract enforcement, or monopolies. This is how we get to real systemic interventions.

But the idea should never be to promote some products. This is the job of business people and entrepreneurs, not development practitioners. No, development practitioners should try to understand and strengthen the system. We make the features of the system that is overlooked or not visible to stakeholders more apparent. I also dislike it when practitioners start with an hypothesis that profit is unfairly distributed, or many of the other typical biases that exists in this field. The simple truth is that investments in economies flows to where there are (visible) returns. If it becomes more profitable to invest in retail than in manufacturing or farming, then this tells us something about the system. It is an important finding in itself which then allows us to ask the next question “how to make farming more profitable for investors (farmers and the poor are also investors)?”.

Your value chain has more value in it than the value added at each stage of the chain. What is valuable is the insight you are gaining about how a part of the economy works. Don’t become a product promoter. Be a system builder.

Categories
From the field Industrial Policy Knowledge Intensive Business Services Thinking out loud

Job creation for electronics contract manufacturing

I know some readers are waiting for the continuation of the series on the services sector. Apologies for the delay.

In the meantime, here is a link to a lead editorial that I wrote for the EngineerIT Journal in Southern Africa. The article is informed by my ongoing work in the electronics sector in South Africa. Advanced sectors such as electronics are often overlooked in developing countries because they don’t seem to absorb low-skilled staff.  However, these advanced sectors play a critical role in upgrading our economy, drawing out different kinds of suppliers, experts and even customers.

Perhaps our greatest asset for the advanced manufacturing sectors in South Africa is that we have some very demanding customers here and in the region. These demanding customers wants sophisticated products that solve problems that are rather unique.  For instance, the depth of mining in the region requires much more robust products that can work for long periods in tough environments. Also, the sophistication of the international crime cartels in the region place stringent demands on the police force in terms of communication technology. I can cite many other examples of how demand shapes the development of certain sectors.

Categories
Advancing manufacturing Complexity and Evolutionary Thinking Private Sector Development Process and Change Facilitation Promoting Innovation Systems Technology and innovation management Thinking out loud

Identifying firms to work with to induce upgrading of industries

This post was revised in February 2018.

When working on the improvement of innovation systems in developing countries, we have to work with firms. These firms have several roles, and there are three units of analysis:

  1. The firm is an important unit of analysis of innovative practices (product, process, business model).
  2. The firm is also a unit of analysis in terms of cooperation and collaboration, thus its ability to cooperate with rivals is an important consideration when we design interventions.
  3. Working with the right firms also provides an important source of technology and knowledge spillovers. This is where the challenge comes in for development practitioners.

Generally, firms that are able to lead the way, or could be good role models, are difficult to involve in development programmes for a variety of reasons. I won’t discuss that right now. What is important to remember is that most firms not only absorb or use technology and knowledge, they are also the main sources of knowledge and technology. This is both from a supply perspective (equipment suppliers, technical or specialist sources of knowledge, etc.) and from a demand perspective (demanding customers, sophisticated demand). Whether firms are aware of their role as disseminators of knowledge of technology is another story!

I will rather focus on how to identify the firms that we can work with to improve innovation and competence in all three units of analysis discussed above. Remember, our objective is to find ways to improve the dynamic in innovation systems that will result in the modernisation and technological upgrading of industries and regions.

More than 25 years ago Bo Carlsson and Gunnar Eliasson described a concept called “economic competence”. At the time they defined economic competence as “the ability to identify, expand and exploit business opportunities” (Carlsson and Eliasson, 1991). This is a useful definition as we have to remember that we cannot innovate on behalf of a broader industry. Somehow we must work with those firms that are able to innovate, imitate, adapt and integrate new knowledge and ideas.

According to Carlsson and Eliasson, economic or business competence has four main components:

  1. Selective (strategic) capability: the ability to make innovative choices of markets, products, technologies and overall organisational structure; to engage in entrepreneurial activity; and especially to select key personnel and acquire key resources, including new competence. This aspect has been amply illustrated in recent years as many companies have struggled to define their corporate identities and strategies as distinct from their competitive strategies in each individual business unit (Porter, 1991).
  2. Organisational (integrative, coordinating) capability: the ability to organise the business units in such a way that there is greater value in the corporate entity as a whole than in the sum of the individual parts.
  3. Technical (functional) ability: this relates to the various functions within the firm, such as production, marketing, engineering, research and development, as well as product-specific capabilities. These are the areas of activity in which firms can compare themselves to their peers or leading competitors.
  4. Learning ability, or the shaping of a corporate culture which encourages continual change in response to changes in the environment.

Economic competence must be present in sufficient quantity and quality on the part of all relevant economic agents, users as well as suppliers, government agents, etc. in order for the technological system to function well. This is both true at a local or regional level, our a national or sectoral level.

If the buyers are not competent to demand or use new technology – or alternatively, if the suppliers are not able or willing to supply it – even a major technical breakthrough has no practical value or may even have negative value if competitors are quicker to take advantage of it.

I think that this business approach of choosing the entrepreneurs that we work with is very relevant to finding the people who can absorb new ideas and make them work in a developing country context. I would also go so far as to state that I do not believe that it is feasible to select “change agents” according to social criteria such as gender, age, etc. – but that we recognise that change within economic systems happens because of the economic competencies of the people who are recognised in the system (regardless of their demographic data). The reality is that you cannot be competent on behalf of other people!

I challenge you to review the firms that you are working with to see if they are economically competent!

Sources:

Carlsson, B. and Eliasson, G. (1991). The nature and importance of economic competence. Working Paper No. 294, The Industrial Institute for Economic and Social Research (IUI).

Porter, M.E. (1991). “Towards a dynamic theory of strategy“, Strategic Management Journal, 12 (Winter Special Issue), pp. 95-117.

Categories
Addressing persistent market failure Complexity and Evolutionary Thinking Industrial Policy Knowledge Intensive Business Services Private Sector Development Thinking out loud

Why the advanced sectors are so often overlooked

It is amazing how little support the advanced sectors of our economy receives from public sources. It seems like this disinterest is caused by multiple factors. One, it is not in line with the priorities of the labour movement. The labour unions prefer a focus on job creation for low skilled workers. However, research has also shown that every professional worker in the knowledge sector creates a multiplier of jobs for lower skilled workers. But like an official told me last week: “the problem is that we don’t want the rich people with skills to get richer. We want the poor people without skills to benefit”. Before you laugh, many development agencies and donors are nurturing the same ideas.  Can someone please explain to me why we choose to cap the income of the ‘rich’ and ‘skilled’? The fact that there is such a high premium on skilled workers are symptoms of a much bigger problem. Can someone also again explain how we are going to get people out of poverty by focusing exclusively on the people in the trap?

Let me get back to my main argument…

The second reason why the advanced sectors are overlooked is because they are so difficult to understand. Knowledge is often not a product in itself, but an input into other production sectors. Therefore it is difficult to describe, capture, measure and report on. But the truth is that more and more of our economic sectors are becoming knowledge intensive. Even something is ‘simple’ as farming (which was done mainly be people with low academic qualifications less than 50 years ago) is now increasingly knowledge intensive. This knowledge intensity is partly due to technology, but also because of the natural specialisation that occurs within industries. A challenge is that we do not do enough in developing countries to embrace and measure the knowledge economy (which is not about clever academics).

The third reason the advanced sectors receive so little public support is because the business sector itself struggles to justify or articulate their needs. The problem with specialisation is that everyone is indeed on their own little island. Thus fragmentation is part of the character of the system.

Perhaps final reason is because development practitioners and public officials think that the clever dudes in the advanced sector can help themselves. Well, have you ever noticed what happens with collective intelligence without a facilitator – it goes down. Putting a bunch of experts in the room will not necessarily result in clever expert ideas coming out. Furthermore, the business owners in the advanced sectors are fierce rivals, all fighting or lobbying for their ideas to become standard. Perhaps I should add that even highly educated and specifically highly experienced people are also blinded sometimes, or are sucked down a dependency path. A final point is that the advanced sectors in other countries are getting really advanced support from the public sector, so leaving our advanced sectors to help themselves is not a wise idea in the longer term. If you want to see what income inequality looks like, then leave the game for just a few to play, with high risks and even higher rewards to the few people that can overcome the technical, market and government obstacles placed in their way (if it sounds familiar it is because it is already happening. Come to South Africa if you want to see this).

Might I add that many donors also prefer to work with the poor and the helpless for political reasons, despite the fact that so many research reports have shown that you cannot solve the problem by working on the symptoms.

So perhaps we need to take a step back and look at the levers created by the advanced sectors in developing countries. We need a more systemic perspective of what is driving change and prosperity in these countries.  I am convinced that we should shift our attention from trying to get one more farmer into a system with no margins, and shift our attention to the industries in the countries we work in. We should use our diagnostic tools to overcome market failures, low economies of scale, and help articulate demand that can create new industries (or new pressures to improve performance).

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Industrial Policy Private Sector Development Technology and innovation management

Stimulating the formation of manufacturing business in South Africa

My international readers must please forgive my focus on my beloved home country in this post. But this is a topic that is close to my heart that we have to resolve in South Africa to secure the wealth and prosperity that our nation so desire. But perhaps you have faced the same challenges wherever you work.

I receive many requests to assist with the ‘creation of industrial businesses’ in South Africa. As this is a topic that is close to my heart I usually respond very enthusiastically to these requests. But in the last year or two the reality of the difficulty of establishing these kinds of businesses have dawned on me. Let me take you through my thinking.

Lets look at what it takes to start a manufacturing business. Firstly, you need an entrepreneur. This person must take the lead and mobilize and marshal the right resources, people and processes to take advantage of some opportunity. I think you would all agree with this statement. But if you unpack this sentence then you find three potential bottlenecks:

a)      you need an entrepreneur;

b)      this person must take the lead and mobilize the right resources, people and processes

c)       you need an viable opportunity

Point a) is a challenge. To start a manufacturing business the entrepreneur stands a far better change if the individual has technical or scientific competency or experience in the industry. With the current incentive environment many black or female candidates with the required competencies are better of in the corporate world, where large salaries and other perks are available. With the shortage of experienced or highly qualified advisors, most white candidates that meet this requirement have incentives to rather provide consulting services to government or large business. Many development programmes try to work around this problem by taking young inexperienced people, or even worse, vulnerable unemployed people, and try to establish them as entrepreneurs despite the fact that they would prefer employment rather than being a business person. I can go on for pages about this issue, but let me stop here.

Point b) is a second challenge. The role of an entrepreneurs goes beyond having a bold vision or being able to spot a great opportunity. The entrepreneur must mobilize resources and recruit sufficiently experienced or qualified people to work towards exploiting the opportunity. It doesn’t end here, as the most important role of the entrepreneur is to use their leadership skills to organize their mobilized resources and people into business and manufacturing processes. The latter is really difficult if the entrepreneur does not have management or manufacturing experience. Of course, we can all think of examples of individuals who have built viable businesses without management or technical skills. These cases are rare for many reasons, and it often depends on the character of the individual and the tolerance of their customers to pay for the steep learning curve that small under-resourced or under-managed enterprises have to go through. Say for instance, an entrepreneur can secure enough capital to start a manufacturing business, but they do not have any manufacturing experience. Unless they are able to recruit and trust a suitable qualified and experienced person that can take the responsibility on the technical side of the business, their investment is doomed. The inverse is also true. When a person that is technically competent starts a business, they might have trouble with the management of the administration and business processes of the enterprise unless they are able to recruit staff with sufficient experience to reduce the risks on that side of the business.

The third point is around the opportunity, and the ability of small enterprises to pursue them. One of the huge business process innovations of the last decades is the emergence of franchises. In a franchise, a proven and tested business system is replicated throughout a market. Think of a car-rental business. If you wanted to start a car rental business 15 years ago, you would need finance for several cars, staff at your outlet, technical staff, and cleaning staff. Now the likes of AVIS and others have mastered their business and technical systems to the point where a franchise in a small town can use tried and tested methods to run an office. The person managing the branch or franchise earns far less than you would be satisfied with, and plugs into a national (or even global) administrative system that manages salaries, vehicles, insurance and logistics. It would take a very brave business person to try and compete with such a hugely refined and efficient business system. And if you think of it carefully, then some of the basic rules of economies is that these kinds of system makes a society wealthier, as the productivity of each person working in that franchise branch is much higher than it would have been in your independent outfit. To compete against these business innovations (the innovation of a decentralized management and administrative system backup up by a highly efficient logistical system) you would need to have a highly differentiated business with many innovations. I am not saying it is impossible, I am simply saying it will not be easy.

OK, that is a service business example. For an entrepreneur to pursue the manufacturing of almost any product, they need suppliers, service providers, process information, marketing channels. The days where a single business making a completely integrated product are over, as these opportunities are often only profitable in a large scale. Manufacturing now takes place in ‘value networks’. So if I wanted to manufacture speakers, I have to establish myself within these networks. Despite the fact that almost an electronic student knows how to create a set of speakers, without knowledge of these networks and industrial systems it would be very difficult to establish a profitable and competitive speaker manufacturing business. So unless my product is completely unique or differentiated, I have to depend on existing systems to build my business.

Why are there so few serious entrepreneurs pursuing detergent mixing, or candle making or many of the other business formats that are often promoted by small enterprise promotion agencies? I think the main reason, is that the opportunity to build a business where a viable return on investment can be secured is limited. This means that vulnerable people are being helped to establish businesses where most sensible investors would not even venture into. If anyone can copy your business model even without acquiring the right skills or technical competencies, then how would you secure your investment?

We need to rephrase the objective of small enterprise development in South Africa. What we need to promote in South Africa is that experienced and technically competent people working in large corporates must have incentives to quit their secure jobs in order to pursue higher risk business opportunities. We need people with management skills, or with scarce technical skills, to start tinkering and designing new businesses, new products, new management systems in order to gain an advantage or an ability to secure a return on investment. Let these people create the jobs for the people that are lacking entrepreneurial skills or technical skills.

Let me know what you think!