Is there a hierarchy of the different levels of innovation?

In my daily work I often switch between working on firm level issues about innovation to working on the more systemic level of innovation systems. My focus is mainly on the institutions that are trying to get whole regions or sub-sectors to uprgrade technologically. In other words, they want modernization of a particular sub-sector or region for a specific reason.

In the last few years I have noticed some patterns that explain why these technology intermediaries are not hitting their targets:

1) they focus mainly on the micro level of the firm, and don’t move to the innovation system level. Moving from one firm to many is not necessarily systemic or holistic.

2) an underlying assumption in many Technology Transfer or economic development programmes with an emphasis on technology is that the problem is that firms cannot innovate (for whatever reason), therefore agencies must innovate on their behalf. It therefore takes a very narrow perspective that innovation is about products or processes, and that technology is about hardware + training. It completely miss the point that innovations emerge from within a specific framework, and that giving a firm a new product on a platter is not technology transfer nor sustainable.

3) a third pattern is the assumption that improving innovation in industry is an engineering problem (see my post on what is meant with technology). It completely ignores that fact that an innovation system is a dynamic system that is mainly about how different economic agents interact, engage, share information, learn together, and remember (learn) what works and what doesn’t work. Freeman (1987:1) defined an innovation system as “the network of institutions in the public and private sectors whose activities and interactions initiate, import and diffuse new technologies.The emphasis is mainly on the dynamics, process and transformation of knowledge and learning into desired outputs within an adaptive and complex economic system.

4) Innovation is somehow disconnected from creativity and creative thinking. Creativity in innovation is all about getting different people to think together. Maybe they agree, most often they don’t. But somehow they need to recognize constraints, threats, opportunities and then work from there. It requires some tension and often a lot of argumentation. It isn’t serendipitous journey. It requires strong leadership and a lot of guts. And it takes time.

Let me stop here.

Earlier in a post I have written about the different levels of innovation that are commonly identified as:

  1. Product or service innovation
  2. Process innovation
  3. Business model or organizational innovation
  4. Social or societal innovation

The funny thing is that everyone is focusing on helping firms to develop new products or maybe even a better process. Yet, the biggest obstacles to product and process innovation is not a lack of effort, or funding or ideas. It is complacent or outdated management, or perhaps business models that worked in another time but that has not kept pace with change. How often do we hear that someone we know or even a whole group quit a firm to start their own enterprise because management wouldn’t listen to their ideas?

Lets get practical. For example, large parts of our South African manufacturing sector is focused on the manufacturing of components designed somewhere else in the value chain. This is most likely explained by several factors including the concentration of corporate ownership in a few industrial holdings (a left over from sanctions and import substitution) and the presence of highly organized supply chains in many sectors like Automotives or electronics. Partial success in getting larger firms to compete internationally, combined with local framework conditions that inhibit the growth of small firms (for instance inflexible labour laws, collective bargaining, Black Economic Empowerment and a preference to procure through tenders) re-inforce this pyramid structure, with many component manufacturers at the base and product integrators (OEMs) at the top of the pyramid. The product owners dominates both their supply chain, the product architecture and the performance criteria. Most component manufacturers are squeezed both on their margin but also on the processes that they may use.

Are we getting things the wrong way around?

To help manufacturers to design new products and services is not entirely a bad idea, but this doesn’t address the systemic problem. We need business model innovation. We need new OEMs to emerge with new product combinations that draw on existing or easy to develop component competencies. Or we need some business model innovation where some traditional component manufacturers expand their business by manufacturing their own products. Perhaps we need some manufacturers to diversify horizontally, or vertically.

I have played with this idea with students in my classes, and almost all business model innovations will lead to interesting product, service and process innovations. However, we can generate long lists of product/service and process innovations that have not resulted in business model innovations. Partly because these firms cannot sell their new innovative products to their existing customers, they also need to diversify their markets which sometimes requires a completely different business approach.

To stimulate a sub-sector or a region to upgrade cannot be achieved only by helping one firm or a few firms at a time. Somehow we have to challenge management models, we have to help business people identify areas for management innovation. This will result in business model, process and product/service innovations that are self perpetuating; meaning businesses can do it again and again because their competence have increased. Actually, the best impulse into innovation is still modern management that is strategic not only about the internal dynamics of the enterprise, but that is also looking outside of the firm into the market place, at their collaborators, new technologies and their competitors. With firms that are aware of what is going on inside and outside the discussion about innovation is a fantastically creative discussion about what is possible or impossible, with the latter gives rise to very interesting discussions. But a firm that is under-managed or managed with outdated principles is very difficult to assist. Giving the latter group a new product, or taking them to a new market simply won’t do the trick.

Perhaps this is where creative destruction of Schumpeter comes in. Sometimes the only way to upgrade a sector is to allow enterprises with new combinations of management, ideas, products and processes to outcompete older more complacent firms. Hopefully some of the incumbents will at least be able to imitate the signals from the new entrants.

I propose a toast to business model innovation.