For my students and online learners, I recommend that you also subscribe to Tim’s blog as he deals with many issues relating to innovation and especially business model innovation.
For my students and online learners, I recommend that you also subscribe to Tim’s blog as he deals with many issues relating to innovation and especially business model innovation.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 :
For the government officials that I work with my work is:
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.
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.
I am supporting great initiative of the Market Facilitation Initiative. Lucho submitted the online debate we’ve been having since 2008 into the annual Harvard Business Review/McKinsey M-Prize for Management Innovation (called MIX). I am a member of the MaFI discussions.
Lucho provides the following short summary “Bilateral and multilateral donors and NGOs re-write the rules of the International Development Cooperation System to unleash the real potential of markets and the private sector to end poverty at a large scale… easier, faster and cheaper. How? Through trust-based partnerships, complexity science, effective organisational learning, systemic M&E and co-evolutionary experimentation.”
The solution offered by Lucho (based on the MaFI dialogue) is:
After almost two years of of discussions, MaFI members produced a manifesto (The MaFI-festo) which has three main objectives:
The MaFI-festo focuses on four areas (in no particular order of importance):
The MaFI-festo will give content and focus to the series of conferences, seminars and workshops mentioned above. These are called the MaFI-festo Dialogues.
To see the application go to http://www.managementexchange.com/node/62551
Find out more about the M-Prize go to: http://www.managementexchange.com/m-prize/long-term-capitalism-challenge
Comment, vote and throw in your ideas!
With each comment, like, or Tweet our submission goes up in the rankings!
Take a look at this post by Charles Kenny at the Centre for Global Development about why people don’t absorb technologies that we know they need!
For those that have participated in any of the training events that I have contributed to in the last years would hopefully recall my favorite energizer called the Systems Game. In this game we simulate a complex system, with all the participants moving around trying to position themselves between two targets in the group, without the targets being aware who is chasing them. Things usually start of neat and tidy, but soon chaos breaks out. After the game we reflect on the system and how to better understand its behavior, and also how to figure out how to stimulate change of behavior in the system.
The pictures below were taken in the last Mesopartner International Summer Academy on Economic Development.
One of the first insights is that our job as practitioners is not to try and fix the system, nor to solve a problem on behalf of the system. Our first job is to try and get the system to become more aware of its own behaviors, issues and dilemmas. Very often this will allow us to use some of the existing relationships, routines and networks of the system to improve the performance or to address some issues in the system.
I received the following little e-mail story recently that actually shows how actors that are aware of the system can easier manipulate the system to achieve certain outcomes. From a few google searches I could not determine the source of the story, except to see that its been featured in many fora. Therefere if you know the original source then please let me know so that I can give proper credit.
Here is the story as I received in my e-mail:
An old man wanted to plant a tomato garden, but it was difficult work, as the ground was hard.
His only son, Vincent, who used to help him, was in prison, and so the old man wrote a letter to his son:
I am feeling sad because I won’t be able to plant my tomato garden this year. I’m too old already.
I know if you were here, you would happily dig the plot for me, like in the old days.
A few days later, he received a letter from his son.
Don’t dig up that garden. That’s where the bodies are buried.
At 4 am the next morning, FBI agents and police arrived and dug up the entire area without finding any bodies.
They apologised to the old man and left.
That day, he received another letter from his son:
Go ahead and plant the tomatoes now. That’s the best I could do under the circumstances.
Now the moral of this story is that only people that are aware of how a system might behave can fully exploit the system to their advantage. I wonder how we can use this insight to promote better inclusiveness in development? From my everyday work experience I know that in value chains and production systems the poor, weak, small and marginalized are often the least aware of how the bigger system(s) around them work. The powerful, better informed and more successful entrepreneurs often have better information at their disposal. While some of this information could be formal, quite a bit of it is qualitative based on a deeper understanding of how things (might) work.
At any point in time I am coaching several development experts and learners around the world. I have a short list of words that when I see them in any document I see red flags. However, there are also several words that when I see them I know we are on the right track.
I share my list with you. Some refer to this as Shawn’s Dictionary for Economic Development.
Synergy NOT compromise. Synergy you focus on using the strengths of different ideas, people, organisations.
Collaboration NOT cooperation through control. Get organisations to work together yet independent. Do not try everyone to sing from the same hymn sheet. Rather allow for some jazz.
Balance NOT single minded or focus. Balance allows you to work with contradiction, conflict and seemingly opposing ideas.
Catalytic NOT incidence or isolated. I know that focus is good in an office environment. But in development focus on a specific incident can easily ignore the bigger system.
Stimulate NOT achieve. Try to find ways of getting the people to work better. Energize the system, don’t just fix the problem.
Identify patterns NOT problems. The patterns tell you about the system, the problem is a symptom.
Explore NOT prescribe. Get the people in the system to better understand what is going on.
Crowd in NOT filter out. By excluding elements in the system by creating artificial filters (like gender, wealth or social status) you weaken the system.
People and relationships NOT products and technology. This one I have to frequently remind myself about. In the end it is about the process that we use to get people to work and thing together, not about the technology or products. The latter is always temporary.
Now I know that there may be certain contexts where my dictionary might not work, but that is why a red flag goes up when I see these “wrong” words. When I see one of the wrong words I must immediately ask some deeper questions.
Which words do you red flag?
Lets build a list and have a debate!