Innovation systems in Metropolitan Regions of developing countries

During 2015 Frank Waeltring and I were commissioned by the GIZ Sector Project “Sustainable Development of Metropolitan Regions” (on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Division 312 – Water, Urban Development, Transport) to write a discussion paper about a hands-on approach to innovation systems promotion in metropolitan regions in developing countries. The discussion paper can be found here.

Frank (left) and Shawn (right) in front of the Berlin Wall Memorial

This assignment was a great opportunity for us to reflect on Frank’s experience on structural change in territorial economic development and my experience on industrialization and innovation systems in developing countries. We also had to think hard about some of the challenges of using a bottom up innovation systems logic in developing countries, as such an approach would rely heavily on the ability of local public management to coordinate strategic activities aimed to improve the dynamics between various public and private stakeholders. It was great to reflect on our past Local Economic Development experience and our more recent work on innovation systems, industrial upgrading and complexity thinking.

A key aspect of this discussion document was to think long and hard about where to start. We know many economic development practitioners in cities are often overrun by demands from both politicians and industries for support. We also know that by selecting promising sectors based on past data and assumptions about job and wealth creation often end in little impact and much frustration. We agreed that an innovation systems approach must be aimed at stimulating the innovative use of knowledge, so we decided to not start with a demand focus (assuming the officials are already responding to some of the demand) or with statistics but a knowledge application focus. The use, generation and recombination of knowledge is central to the technological upgrading of regions, industries, institutions and societies. From our experience in promoting innovation systems and our recent research into non-consensus based decision making (this is where you do not select target sectors based on consensus or assumptions about growth potential, but you look at emergent properties in the system) we decided to start with three questions to understand the dynamics of knowledge flows in the region:

  1. Which enterprises, organisations and even individuals are using knowledge in an innovative way? Obviously this question is not simple and can only be answered by reaching out in the local economy to institutions, firms and individuals.
  2. Which stakeholders are actively accumulating knowledge from local or external sources? Again, this is an exploration.
  3. Who are individuals or organisations that know something about unique problems (challenges, demands, constraints) in the region? These could be buyers, supply chain development officials, public officials, engineers or even politicians that are willing to articulate unique demands on the regional economy that might not have been responded on by local (or external) enterprises.

These three questions are treated as an exploration that will most likely be most intensive at the start. In our experience economic development practitioners should constantly be asking themselves these questions when working on any form of private sector upgrading.

A second dimension is about assessing the interplay between institutions and industries and its effect on innovative behavior within regions. Who is working with whom on what? Why? What are the characteristics of the life cycles or maturity of various kinds of stakeholders in the region? Thus we are trying to understand how knowledge “flows” or is disseminated in the region. While some knowledge flows are obvious, perhaps even formal, some knowledge flows could be more tacit and informal. For instance, while knowledge flows from education is quite formal, the informal knowledge exchange that takes place at social events is much more informal, yet very important.

Apart from the identification of the dynamics and interrelations between the industries and the different locations, one other key factor is to identify the drivers of change who want to develop the competitive advantages of the region.

We also present our technological capability upgrading approach as six lines of inquiry, some of which have been covered in earlier posts on this weblog:

  1. The company-level innovation capability and the incentives of firms to innovate, compete, collaborate and improve, in other words the firm-level factors affecting the performance of firms and their net-works of customers and suppliers. These include attempts within firms to become more competitive and also attempts between firms to cooperate on issues such as skills development, R&D, etc.
  2. The macroeconomic, regulatory, political and other framework conditions that shape the incentives of enterprises and institutions to develop technological capability and to be innovative.
  3. Investigation of the technological institutions that disseminate knowledge.
  4. The responsiveness and contribution of training and education organisations in building the capacity of industry, employees and society at large.
  5. Investigation not only of the interaction and dynamics between individual elements in the system, but of the whole system.
  6. Exploring poorly articulated needs or unmet demands that are not visibly pursued by the innovation system.

We, and of course our GIZ colleagues of the Sector Project Sustainable Development of Metropolitan Regions, are very keen to engage with the readers on these ideas? Please post your comments, questions to this weblog so that we can have a discussion.

Best wishes, Shawn and Frank (Mesopartner)

 

 

Stock take of the Instigating Innovation series

Last year I started writing a series about Instigating Innovation. To make it easier for regular and irregular readers the previous posts are summarized here.

The first post in the series was published in June 2015. I chose “instigating” because it has a more positive ring to it than provocation or incitement. While it is a noun with mainly a positive tone, it is a bit more aggressive than support, enable or encourage or even stimulating. I have been referred to in my past as an instigator of change so I thought this was a good idea.

Bear in mind that the content of this series is aimed at meso-level industry supporting institutions and programmes as well as enterprises themselves.

A second post explored where people wanting to instigate innovation can possibly start. My personal takeout from that post is the last paragraph:

“A quote that is attributed to William Gibson goes “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. Step one is to get more people involved in searching for what is already here, it is just not recognized inside the firm or industry.”

Then I wrote two posts (innovation culture and cultural change) about innovation culture in enterprises. When I teach about innovation I am always struck by how executives think that by creating a function in an enterprise strategic problems will be solved. This is especially true for innovation, but it also applies to other management areas such as strategy, operations and marketing.

The last post of 2015 in the series looked at the four universal functions that management must attend to in order to institutionalize innovation.

I have planned a further five posts in this series, but have already started writing this up as a working paper. Thank you for the constructive feedback from Ulrich, Frank, Goran, Larry, Liza and the “likes” from many of my regular readers!

Please let me know which ideas you have already implemented or tried in your organization!

Four functions of innovation and technology management

Originally published in November, 2015, revised in March 2018

I would like to continue the “Instigating Innovation” series (see opening post herewhere to start and the post about culture here). The idea behind this series is that I explain innovation management concepts that can be used by both enterprises and technology transfer and industry support institutions.

To recapitulate: I believe that many industries are struggling to modernise because their supporting institutions use completely different frameworks to manage innovation (or perhaps the supporting institutions make their choices as randomly as enterprises do). One of the first concepts that a tech transfer institute or industry support organisation should transfer to enterprises is “how to manage innovation and technology”. Just because there is an engineer or an MBA/PhD in a company does not guarantee effective or creative management of innovation and technology.

Today I shall focus on the four broad functions that must be managed strategically in every enterprise and supporting institution. Even if someone in the organisation has the job title of Innovation Manager or Technology Manager, these functions should still be visible throughout the organisation. In other words, this is not somebody’s job, but it helps if somebody coordinates these activities.

The four functions agreed by most scholars and innovation experts can be summarised roughly as:

  1. Searching and scanning for new ideas and technologies, both within and beyond the organisation. This includes looking at technologies that could affect the clients of the organisation, and technologies that could disrupt markets and industries.
  2. Comparingselecting and imagining how different technologies could impact the organisation, its markets and its own innovation agenda.
  3. Next comes integrating or deploying the technology or innovation into the organisation. This includes adjusting processes and systems, scaling up implementation, and project managing the whole change process.
  4. The last step is often overlooked, but new technology and innovation often make new ideas, innovations and improvements possible. I call this last step exploiting the benefits of a new technology or idea. This could involve leveraging some of the additional benefits or features of a technology, perhaps by creating a new business unit focused on an adjacent market or particular offering.

When I visit institutions, organisations and companies, I always ask “who is thinking about change taking place beyond your industry or key technology?”. I cannot tell you how often I hear that “the CEO” or “the production manager” are on top of new developments and will be attending a tech fair next year. How can this huge responsibility fall on the shoulders of one or two people, who are at the same time biased towards the current strategy which favours justifying past (sunk) investments? Or if you ask “How did you choose between two technologies?”  you will be surprised how little time was spent considering new business opportunities, or how few companies asked for on-site demonstrations or samples from their preferred technology providers.

I will refrain from being too critical of technology transfer institutions and industry-supporting organisations, except to say that these organisations should be a prime example to industry of how to scan, evaluate, compare and integrate new ideas and technologies. We don’t just want to see the shiny machines and neat facilities, we want to understand how you arrived at your decisions, and how you made the best of your investments after implementing the change. Furthermore, industry wants to know what’s next, or what’s beyond their vision and how it may affect their industry.

To bring it all together, the technological upgrading of industries is plagued by many different market failures. These failures include the tendency NOT to invest due to high research costs, due to fears about making the wrong choices, or because so many decisions and changes must be made at the same time – this while the business continues, markets fluctuate, and technologies change faster and faster. Companies (and institutions) cannot afford just to kick start innovation management immediately before making a change (or when forced by external forces to make a decision). These functions must be managed strategically on a continuous basis, both at the level of top management and within the different functions of the organisation. Both companies and their supporting institutions need to manage innovation and technology, not only from an operational perspective (striving for continuous improvement, etc.) but also from a strategic point of view.

 

If the culture cannot change then the business cannot change

Originally published in August 2015, revised in January 2018

I received many comments and tweets about the previous post. Thank you for ideas and comments

Some agreed that innovation is the result of culture. Some said that culture is not only created by management, but also by staff. For instance, the admin pool in a traditional engineering company can be very innovative (and creative) even if the rest of the business is stuck in the 1980s.

Somebody told me that creating an innovative culture is in itself a chicken-egg (low equilibrium) situation, because for a leader to create (or enable) an innovative culture takes innovation in itself. You can see where this is going.

Then I discovered a recent cartoon in my inbox by Hugh Macleod of Gapingvoid fame. This cartoon says it all.

An organization that cannot change its culture (due to too rigid systems, due to lack of management capability, due to its people) has become trapped in time. While some organizations may exist like this due to sheer momentum, due to protection (by law), by continuous funding, or for whatever reason, will struggle to adapt to external change. These organizations are not resilient and they are at the mercy of external supporters (a.k.a clients, benefactors, funders or shareholders).

I was also asked how some organizations can still innovative despite a poor innovation culture. Again, it is of course possible to replace a machine, or for a few people in an organization to design something brilliant, or for a new process to emerge. Of course it is possible. But it takes much more energy, determination of a few, and some really tenacity to be innovative in an un-innovative (what is the right word here?) culture.

I am sure more comments will come.

Cheers, Shawn

I appreciated the comments received by e-mail, but wonder why people are not posting comments to this article? Is the WordPress registration process to difficult? Please let me know. And keep those comments coming!

Innovation as cultural as opposed to innovation as a technique or function

Originally published in August 2015, revised in January 2018

Reflecting on the correspondence I have received after my previous post and recent training sessions with manufacturers, I have come to realise that people are looking for tools and tricks to encourage innovation in their workplaces. Sometimes it is actually not even about innovation, but about making up for poor past decisions, such as not investing in technology or market development when they should have. Others think of innovation as a function or as a management tool that can be standardised into a job description or an area of responsibility. While this is possible in some contexts, I don’t find this approach to innovation of much use in the smaller and medium-sized manufacturing firms and the research/technology institution space in which I am working.

For me, innovation is firstly a value, a perspective of how organisations should be. When management says, “We are an innovative organisation “or” We want an innovative culture “or” Our reputation is that we are innovative”, then we can move to tools, portfolios, tricks and tweaks (those things that people in innovation functions must attend to). Many textbooks, articles and blog sites on innovation and technology management are then useful. Actually the challenge is to decide which of the bucket loads of advice to use, and consultants such as I typically help organisations to choose a few tools and provide guidance on how to use them fully and consistently. I would dare to say that it is relatively easy to help companies that are already innovative to become more innovative.

 

What really intrigues me is those organisations that do not think of themselves as being innovative, or that are from industries considered to be traditional and not innovative. Perhaps they used to be innovative, or perhaps they are innovative in some areas but not in others. Perhaps they had one or two tricks in the past that have now become irrelevant. These could be extremely competent organisations, such as a university department, a manufacturer of highly specialised industrial equipment or an organisation that simply designs and manufacturers exactly what its customers order. Even if the outputs of these organisations can be described as ‘innovative’, they do not necessarily have innovative cultures that are constantly creating novel ideas, processes and markets. In my experience these organisations have brilliant technical people, but management is often not able to harness the genius, experience or creativity of its people. The main reason for this is not a lack of technique, tools or tricks, but the lack of an innovative culture, leading to a lack of innovative purpose.

These organisations are trapped. They are equipped for the past, and they are paralysed by all the choices they have to make for the future. For management, it feels as though everything it has in place is inadequate and needs equal attention, ranging from attracting staff with better or different qualifications to finding new markets, developing new technological capability, sorting out cash flow and capital expenditure, and addressing succession planning.

Improving the innovation culture of an organisation is a complex issue. It is not about tasks, functions or tools, but about changing relations between people within and beyond the boundaries of the organisation. Innovation in these organisations is a sideshow, a project, whereas it really needs to be central to the business strategy, a different way of looking at the world.

When working with organisations that must improve their innovative culture, interventions like motivational speeches and optimistic visions of the future are not useful and could in fact deepen the crises facing management. Nurturing a culture of innovation goes far beyond establishing or refining innovation management functions. It is a strategic issue that is initiated by top management, but that will soon spill over into every area of the organisation, hence it cannot be driven by a management function called ‘innovation’.

Improving the innovation culture process starts with connecting management back with its people. It starts in the present, the now, not with future scenarios, not with using innovation techniques and better analytical tools, and in most cases not with some or other management fad. It goes beyond trying to improve products, processes or business areas, beyond gaps in management’s capability. It must look at the relations between people, between what people know and can do now (or knew and could do in the recent past), and the potential people see to make small improvements. It is essentially about many dialogues happening throughout and even beyond the organisation. After cultivating dialogue, management needs to empower the organisation’s people to allocate resources to activities that strengthen the learning culture, that turn even small improvement projects into processes that broaden thinking, deepen learning and motivate people to think beyond just their specific tasks.

When management has the courage to decide to improve its culture of innovation it starts a process that cannot be described as incremental improvement, as that sounds too directed. It is rather like a deepening, or an awakening, where employees are inspired to contribute, and management is more aware of what it can do to enable its employees to become more innovative on all fronts. Of course, management faces the risk that outdated management approaches that do not seek to empower employees to be creative will be exposed, and some tough decisions will have to be made.

To nurture an innovative culture requires innovation in itself. It requires management at different levels to rethink its roles from being directive to being enabling, from being top down to being more engaged with its teams.

Instigating innovation: Where to start

Originally published in 2015, revised in February 2018

I am currently focused on strengthening the manufacturing sector. I am speaking more and more at meetings and events, in boardrooms and to post-graduate students about innovation. In this increasingly engineering-minded world people frequently ask me for tips on how to get innovation going.

Some of the ideas people put forward are:

“How about an idea box?”
“How about canvassing ideas for a new product design from our customers?”
“How about rewarding our engineers with a profit share if they design a new product?”

However, the truth is that many manufacturing enterprises, especially the smaller ones, are too narrowly sliced into specific functions. They are mimicking large organisations and by doing so are giving up any flexibility and resilience that they might have had. Designers design, manufacturers manufacture and salesmen sell. This functional division of their hierarchy makes information flows about potential improvements, new market opportunities and some old tricks that could become useful again very difficult. The cost of coordination in these enterprises is very high. In these silo-based organisations the cost of finding information, new signals and new ideas from outside the organisations is extremely high, and in general they struggle to learn. Why I mention them is that innovation is something that most organisations are already doing, they just do not recognise it as such. Innovation is lost within functions, or is overlooked because a project is focusing on addressing some or other need. Every improvement project could also be used to change or improve the culture of innovation, to deepen the use of knowledge and to increase capabilities and options for an uncertain future.

A second problem is that most smaller manufacturers are mainly focused on product innovation. Which does not mean being focused on knocking the socks off their customers with frequent improvements or brilliant designs. Unfortunately, many of the more traditional manufacturers are focused on how to reduce the price or how to sort out quality issues. This is actually a kind of process improvement, but a very narrow one. The limitation of this incremental approach is that you can at best only grow and develop as fast as your customers can articulate what they want. Competitors or substitutes can also upset market relations by coming up with novel solutions that an incremental approach struggles to generate.

A third problem is that innovation is only carried out when customers demand it. It is passive. It functions in bursts to get things right, and then it settles into a problem-solving mode until the next customer makes some unreasonable demands. One should be grateful when clients give you a piece of their mind, but this is still far too passive to my way of thinking.

What many manufacturers lack, especially those in the more traditional sectors such as metals and engineering, is a focused effort by top management to build a culture of innovation that is actively trying to find product, process and business model improvements. The effort must be focused internally in order to constantly rethink the business and its core processes, and at the same time it must be focused externally on what customers and competitors are doing. The really good companies are also looking beyond current markets and competitors at new technologies and how they might shape the future.

Thus far I have addressed the business perspective. However, research organisations, technology transfer centres and industry support centres can also become trapped in a low-innovation culture.

I am currently working with a few industry groups and research and technology centres to find out how these organisations can move beyond the “catching up” and responding to change modes towards anticipating what will come next. This sounds perfectly simple, but by merely mobilising more and more people in the organization to search for what’s next has already yielded amazing results in a short time. Perhaps I am being over-optimistic, but I can already sense the innovation culture change in these organisations as more and more people become involved in searching for possibilities.

Here’s an apt quote attributed to William Gibson: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”.

The first kind of search is to get more people involved in searching for what is already present within the organisation, but is not recognised or is not being used to transform the organisation. The second kind of search is to go beyond the organisation in related and unrelated markets and technologies. Take trends such as the global shift to automation, or the new developments in artificial intelligence and play with these within your organisation. Wonder out loud with your people about what this might mean for the organisation, for clients, for suppliers. How might these technologies or trends influence their investment decisions, their viability or their business models? Use these vague concepts to rethink the organisation, its networks, its technologies and systems.

That is what I call instigating innovation, when the dialogue led by the leadership mobilises more and more people within and outside the organisations to start thinking creatively, connectedly and in new ways about the future and the present. Lay a strong foundation for innovation by getting more people to think, imagine, connect ideas and improve.

New series: Instigating Innovation

I have been developing a new capacity building method and training approach that brings together my work in innovation systems promotion  and my work on improving technology and innovation management. I call it “Instigating Innovation”.

I chose “instigating” because it has a more positive ring to it than provocation or incitement. While it is a noun with mainly a positive tone, it is a bit more aggressive than support, enable or encourage or even stimulating. I have been referred to in my past as an instigator of change so I thought this was a good idea.

Why was this effort firstly necessary and secondary so rewarding?

My work on innovation systems is mainly aimed at assisting meso-organizations such as technology transfer centres, research centres and universities to be more responsive to the needs of the private sector. While it only takes a few interviews by a senior decision maker from one of these institutions to a few leading enterprises to get the organization to improve its offering to the private sector, it does not solve the problem that these institutions often needs a continuous process of innovation itself. So while they can respond to the needs of the enterprises (for instance by launching a new service, or making a key technology available, etc), they often are not able to innovate constantly in order to anticipate what they private sector might need in the future.

With my other hat on, working in the private sector to improve the management of technology and innovation is focused on helping individual and on rare occasions, groups or networks of enterprises to formalize or improve their management of innovation. Here my challenge is that most enterprises innovate by accident, or have elements of an innovation management approach in place without knowing it. But it is not systematic nor is it consistent.

So both supporting institutions and enterprises lack some very basic frameworks to focus their existing development and learning processes to ensure not only short term results (new products & services, process improvements, cost reduction, etc) but to also ensure longer term success (playing in the right markets, selecting the right technologies, investing in the right kind of knowledge, partnering with the right people, etc). Furthermore, most enterprises and supporting institutions have something else in common: they often face resource constraints with the most versatile of their staff being involved in problem solving and not thinking about the future and what may be possible sometime down the line.

I set aside most of March and had great fun reading through my collection of articles, books, reports of past missions, and speaking to entrepreneurs and development practitioners I trust. Based on this investigation I decided on the following criteria for instruments to include in the Instigating Innovation module:

  1. Each instrument or concept must be relevant to both enterprises and meso-level organizations05 building innovative capacity small
  2. Each instrument must provide a very simple framework that can be illustrated on a flipchart
  3. The simple framework must be usable as a workshop format that allows people to reorganize or explore their current and future practices
  4. The frameworks must be scalable, both in depth (allowing pointers for a deep dive into an issue) and in width (useable for a product, issue, portfolio or the strategy of the organization as a whole).
  5. Lastly, I did not want to be the consultant with a project, I want to be the facilitator that enables change and that builds long term sustainability into the organizations that I work with.

This was a very rewarding exercise. Not only do I love reading about innovation, change and technology, I love finding better ways to explain these concepts. It was also great to find a way to connect my work on innovation systems, which often seems abstract, with the tough decisions that the enterprises that I work with must confront and address. I tend to work in the more technical domains dominated by academics, engineers, scientists and manufacturers, so finding a simple yet convincing way to add value to what these clever people do was important.

I will in the next few posts reveal a little bit more of the tools I selected and how it can be used.

Thank you for the EDA team in Bosnia and Herzegovina who motivated me to turn this idea into a capacity building format and who agreed that I try “Instigating Innovation” on their team during my visit to Banja Luka in May 2015!

Instigating Innovation in Banja Luka with the team from EDA
Instigating Innovation in Banja Luka with the team from EDA

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.