Identifying firms to work with to induce upgrading of industries

This is a continuation of the series on improving innovation systems.

When working on the improvement of innovation systems in development countries, we have to work with firms. These firms have multiple roles. Firstly, the firm is an important unit of analysis where we look at innovative practices (product, process, business model). Furthermore, the firm is also an unit of analysis in terms of cooperation and collaboration, thus their ability to cooperate with rivals is an important consideration when we design interventions.

Lastly, 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 be good role models, are difficult to involve in development programmes for different 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 in technology is another story!

Businesses absorb knowledge from other businesses that are economically competent

I will rather focus on how to find the firms that we can work with to improve innovation and competence for all 3 units of analysis discussed earlier. Remember, our objective is to find ways to improve the dynamic in innovation systems that will result in the modernization and technological upgrading of industries and regions.

More than 15 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 important as we have to remember that we cannot innovative on behalf of industry. Somehow we must work with the firms that are able to innovate, imitate, adapt and integrate new knowledge and ideas into their firms.

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

  1. Selective (strategic) capability: the ability to make innovative choices or markets, products, technologies and overall organizational 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. Organizational (integrative, coordinating) capability, i.e. the ability to organize 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 relating 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.

If the users 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 to choose the entrepreneurs that we work with is very relevant to finding the people that can absorb new ideas and that can make it work in a developing country context. I will also state that I do not believe it feasible to select “change agents” on 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 that are recognized in the system (regardless of their demographical information). 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!

Source:

Carlsson, B and Eliasson, G,.1991 The nature and importance of economic competence

Porter, M.E. (1991) “Towards a Dynamic Theory of Strategy“, Strategic Management Journal, 12 (Winter Special Issue), pp. 95-117.

The difference between academic and industrial science

One of my favourite authors on the topic of science is the late John Ziman. Ziman played an important role in popularising science and its role in the technological evolution of societies. We have some of his books on our Mesopartner bookstore (You can also click on the images on the right of the screen) .

In his last book, Real Science, he made an important distinction between science in academia, and science in industry. This is relevant to me because I am assisting universities to conduct more relevant scientific research that will benefit industry. At the same time I am assisting industries to intensify their scientific research.

According to Ziman, academic science works towards the Mertonian norms introduced by Robert K Merton in 1942, also known as CUDOS. Merton advanced our understanding of the ethos of the scientific process. I like Ziman’s (2000) discussion of the Mertonian principles. CUDOS is as an acronym that denotes good academic research and stands for:

  • Communalism – fruits of academic science should be public knowledge (belongs to the whole scientific community), and the communication and dissemination of results are as almost as important as the research itself,
  • Universalism – researchers and scientists relate to each other regardless of the rank and experience of the researcher. The norm of universalism requires that scientific findings are evaluated objectively regardless of the status, race, gender, nationalism or any other irrelevant criteria,
  • Disinterestedness – academic scientists have to be humble and disinterested. Work is done in a neutral, impersonal and is often recorded in the passive voice. It disassociates with the personal or social problems, and focus on advancing knowledge or solving a very specific problem in an almost clinical way.
  • Originality – every scientist is expected to contribute something new to the archive, while building on the knowledge of predecessors. Unfortunately this also sometimes constrains how creative academic research can become. “new” could mean new data, questions, methods and insights.
  • Scepticism – This norm triggers important brakes on scientists, as it involves critical scrutiny, debate, peer review and contradiction before being accepted. It is important as it deepens understanding and knowledge from different research perspectives, and should not seen as being completely negative, rather it should be seen as being necessary.

 

Industrial science works towards what Ziman (2000:78-79) calls PLACE:

  • Proprietary – the knowledge is not made public (or at least as little as necessary is made public),
  • Local – it is focused on local technical problems rather than on increasing general understanding,
  • Authoritarian – Industrial researchers act within a hierarchy and must work to please senior management, in other words, it is not serendipitous,
  • Commissioned – it is undertaken to achieve practical goals rather than to just improve knowledge, and
  • Expert – industrial researchers are employed as expert problem solvers, rather than for their personal creativity and writing or teaching skills.

 

Ziman argues that when universities undertake contract research for industry, they somehow cross the boundaries between these two approaches to research. For instance, industry is more interested in solving a specific technological challenge and would prefer that senior researchers work on a problem. In the last 50 years it has increasingly become necessary for universities to raise 3rd stream income, so it a universally accepted practice that universities undertake research for and in cooperation with industry.  However, a university must prioritise the development of interns and junior researchers (and achieve other social goals). Furthermore, industry may not be interested in registering a patent (immediately), otherwise their secrets gets shared with the whole world. Academic researchers on the other hand, are expected to deliver publications when they cannot deliver patents or licenses, thus there is another conflict of their objectives. Perhaps a last comment is that universities are under pressure to solve social problems that are deemed “relevant” by prevailing political pressures, while industry prefer to solve problems that are immediate, relevant and that may even be in contrast with the desires of the prevailing political and social debates. Practically this means that at the moment industry may need to automate to remain competitive, thus incurring job losses, while government and the society may be demanding job creation for people with little or no technical education.

 

Universities must understand this tension, and must operate within and between different modes of conducting research. Current legislation perhaps assumes one standard approach to university research, that always results in something that can be published and or patented (licensed), and it further assumes that the value (and cost) or research is known at the time of start of the research or after completion. Practical experience indicates that this is not always the case. Sometimes the value of research only becomes apparent when it faces market forces.

 

Sources:

ZIMAN, J.M. 2000.  Real Science: what it is, and what it means. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 ZIMAN, J.M. 2003.  Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process. Cambridge Cambridge University Press.

Innovation is not linear

You would think that everyone would know this by now.

You are wrong.

Frequently, policy makers, universities and technological supporting institutions erroneously describe innovation according to a linear model that assumes that innovation is applied science. It is assumed to be ‘linear[1]‘ because it is believed that there are a series of well-defined stages that innovations go through, starting with research (science), followed by development and then finally production and marketing. In this linear model scientific research is deemed to be the most important step as it is the first step in the process. Although there are some cases that have followed this route, they are in the minority.

A softer version of the linear process of innovation is where it is assumed that the knowledgeable people are in the academia or business support structures, and that the task of policy makers is to devise ways to transfer the knowledge flows from universities and supporting structures to businesses. The main perceived limitation is the inability of business people to learn by themselves or to absorb knowledge from the system around them.

In the real world, innovation is dynamic and it is complex. It sometimes starts with a clever idea by an entrepreneur about an unmet need in the market. At other times it starts with a customer complaining to a service technician. Often it starts with a problem or obstacles, and in a few cases it is the result of brainstorming. Wherever it starts, innovation is definitely not neat and tidy. In fact, it is quite chaotic.

But there are elements of the innovation process that may appear linear, like a product development process (product innovation). But this scarce and mainly happens in professionally run firms. For most of us, innovation is not a structured process.

Again, it is important to understand that innovation in a systemic context often arise due to the interaction between different social actors like enterprises, technical specialists, suppliers, customers and maybe the odd academic.

Notes:

[1] The ‘linear’ innovation process was first criticised by KLINE, S. & ROSENBURG, N. 1986.  An overview of innovation. In The positive sum strategy: harnessing technology for economic growth. Landau, R. & Rosenburg, N. (Eds.), Washington, DC: National Academies Press, pp. 275-305.


The difference between invention and innovation

This post is copied from a chapter in a book that I am working on about the fundamentals of innovation systems. I am responsible for the thematic area of innovation systems within the knowledge consultancy mesopartner that I am a partner of. If you want to stay abreast of the work I am doing on this topic then I urge you to subscribe to my blogsite so that you can receive an e-mail every time I add some content (click on the sign me up button on the top right).

We often find that development practitioners, business people and policy makers are not clear about the distinctions between innovation and invention.

A widely accepted distinction between invention and innovation is provided by Fagerberg et al. (2005:4). According to Fagerberg et al., invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process (first to the world), while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out in practice within a specific context (by, for instance, introducing a machine from another country into a local manufacturing process). Thus invention and innovation could be closely linked, although in most cases they are separated in time (sometimes decades or centuries), place and organisation. However, the fact that innovation typically emerges within a complex system is often overlooked. For instance, as Schumpeter (1964/1911) explained, the innovator who invented the steam engine still had to wait for others to develop the different aspects of the rail system before it could be commercially viable. The steam engine was initially invented in a completely different context, again illustrating how inventions are dependent on the context in which they arise.

While many innovations can be linked to well-funded research programmes, funding is not a pre-condition for innovation. In fact, in many cases a lack of resources could stimulate people to innovate. Firms usually innovate because they believe there is a commercial benefit to the effort and costs involved in innovating. This commercial benefit could be measured in terms of return on investment or profits, but it could also be about cost saving, resource optimisation, solving a recurring problem or responding to the demands of a customer. Often increased competition, changes in market structure or market demand, or changes in technological performance also affect the innovation process. However, innovation requires taking or at least managing risks. Therefore, firms with low capital or with tied up resources are less likely to innovate.

To turn an invention into an innovation, a firm typically needs to combine several different types of knowledge, capabilities, skills and resources from within the organisation and the external environment (Schumpeter, 1964/1911). The interaction between knowledge and learning will be discussed in more detail in the next section.

The willingness of an individual to tinker and explore better solutions is influenced in part by the organisational context of the innovator, but also by factors such as education, qualifications, meta-level factors such as culture, personal characteristics (such as patience, inquisitiveness or tolerance of failure) and the institutional environment. Other factors such as competitive pressure, problem pressure, or social and economic incentives also play a role. Locations with a more diverse economic and social make-up are more likely to be conducive to innovation, as actors interact with people with similar and different interests. The proximity of other actors and the density of interactions make imitation, cross-pollination of ideas, learning from others and the combination of different ideas into new products and services more viable (and less expensive). This feature could explain why urban areas are often hotbeds of innovation – there are more people with different ideas and perspectives that stimulates and often absorbs new innovations.

Why does this matter? Well, many countries (including South Africa) over emphasize “invention” (even when they say “innovation”). Many financial incentives, loans and support programmes prioritize novelty as opposed to absorption. Absorption is important for innovation, as it indicates how ready firms, industries or societies are to not only learn from their own mistakes (and success), but to also learn from the mistakes and the success of others.

Therefore innovation stimulation is about getting our developing countries ready and willing to absorb insights and ideas from others, as much as it is about getting our entrepreneurs to be creative.

As someone famous once said: “why re-invent the wheel?”. With our small budgets we are highly unlikely to out-invent our international peers on many of the topics that are now seen as “sexy” like climate technology etc.

Our priority should remain to get our entrepreneurs and enterprises to be innovative at product, process and business model level. Only once we improve our absorptive capacity will we be able to become inventive.

Sources:

FAGERBERG, J., MOWERY, D.C. & NELSON, R.R. 2005.  The Oxford handbook of innovation. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

SCHUMPETER, J. 1964/1911.  Theorie der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung. Eine Untersuchung über Unternehmergewinn, Kapital, Kredit, Zins und den Konjunkturzyklus. Berlin: Duncker und Humblot.

Quick recap: what is an innovation system?

Before I continue with this series, it is necessary for me to refer you back to a post I wrote some time ago where I described what an innovation system is. For the full post, click here

For those to lazy to click on links I will quickly summary two key points.

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.

So how does innovation systems work within regions or places? Well, it is often affected by issues such as trust, social and informal networks, formal relationships, common customers or common inputs and other factors. You will notice that it sounds very similar to the characteristics of a cluster in its early days. The main characteristic of a local or regional innovation system is that it is mainly focused on a specific geographic space and on the specific knowledge spill-overs that occur around certain firms, industries or institutions unique to that space.

For the rest of the post where I related innovation systems to the surrounding geographic environment click here.

Starting the innovation system series

The next few posts will be focused on my work in the last 18 months. I have dedicated a large part of my work into diagnosing and improving innovation systems in South Africa.

My perspective is quite unique, as I did not conduct these studies to develop national policy, but rather to assist intermediary organizations to take steps to improve the innovation systems that we diagnosed. What further differentiates my view is that we start our diagnosis with the private sector, and then work our way back to universities, technology intermediaries and other public sector organizations.

When I went down this road I thought that I had parted with my previous work on local economic development (which has been ruined in South Africa due to petty politics and misguided local government interventions). Little did I know that my previous experience in mobilising local stakeholders, trying to access national public sector programmes, and begging for a more responsive national stakeholders would remain so relevant in this exercise.

Many people ask me why I switched into a topic like Innovation Systems. It sounds so IT’ish. Well, it is far from that. My concern is with finding ways to build manufacturing industries and their supporting sectors from the bottom up (can we panic about the de-industrialisation in Africa, please?). My obsession is to figure out what can be done to get whole parts of an economy to upgrade technologically, without industry expecting governments to pay for everything. So basically, I am trying stimulate reflection and adjustment in  the manufacturing sector which includes their public and private supporters in the system around them. Also important is to equip the stakeholders in the system to reflect on the patterns around them, and to understand how they can change their own behaviour and how to actively shape the supporting environment around them.

I will close by saying that diagnosing a system around an industry is never a once off exercise. This is perhaps why so many development interventions don’t set change processes in motion that is re-inforcing and ongoing. Our biggest challenge is not to convince industries that they have to change, but to assist them to frequently reflect on their patterns of behaviour (even after we have left). We have to help industries to develop new habits of interaction (that adds value and this makes business sense), we have to strengthen local institutions to assist with strengthening signals of change and improvement (so that firms know that if they stop trying to improve they will fall behind). In the end it does not help that we understand their system, but that they understand their own systems.

The best part is that I get to work with real entrepreneurs, real scientists, real social change agents, and often really committed public officials. Real change without logframes and impact chains. Unfortunately we often also have to achieve this change with small budgets.

How competitive is South Africa?

Hopefully my international readers are not following the news in South Africa. Over the last few months we have been blasted with negative and mixed messages from the government. It sometimes seems like the government is fighting itself.

But to be honest. Actually, the mood here is not so positive everyday, and for the first time in my professional career I am being asked by industry associations and by local enterprises on practical ways to move parts of their business out of the country. That is one of the main reasons why I have not blogged much in the last weeks. As a positive leader I felt that I did not have anything optimistic to say because I was feeling depressed about the situation.

But the recent long weekend we had gave me some time to reflect.

Firstly, I spend a lot of my time interviewing and visiting businesses to find innovative and competitive enterprises. Take my word, we have some fantastic business people out there. And not all of them are big. Not all of them are famous. Not all of them are white. Many enterprises just get on with it. While some get the basics right, others get the extraordinary right. Unfortunately I also know (like they do) that many enterprises can do better, they can create more wealth and they are all able to absorb more labour. But then the reasons why they don’t is out there in the press. And I understand this reasoning.

Secondly, I agree with an excellent article by Cindy Mauigue about our competitiveness and the reasons for our declining rankings. I would argue that South Africa can make up for the loss in its international rankings of the WEF and the World Competitiveness Reports by being smart (and by setting some priorities that may not be popular). On many of the areas we are in deep trouble, and with the current power of the unions I am not sure that the cluster of indicators around labour market flexibility and competitiveness will be dealt with soon.

But there are also some “low hanging fruit”, indicators that we can address in the next few years. Some of these deal with technical issues like extending and lowering the costs of internet connectivity (can we please have some decision making on this soon?). If you look at how we perform on the criteria of the WEF then you see that we are ranked very high on many of the economic and technological indicators. In fact, we are frequently ranked in the top 10 or 20 on several of the 12 main areas.

So according to the rankings we are falling behind our peers with every year, but as I have just argued, there are some things that our country can do in the next two or three years as well. Unfortunately not many of these issues are described as urgent or important in the planning that our government is busy with (National Planning Commission and the New Growth Plan, to cite just two).

To improve our rankings would require that the senior leaders of our country make up their minds about the image we want to project inwards (to our local investors, entrepreneurs and young people wondering what to do with their lives) and outwards (foreign investors and people with skills thinking of moving here). If we do not clear up the signals then entrepreneurs will keep their cash safe (probably by moving it out of the country), will take fewer risks, and in general our economy will struggle to absorb more people into the labour force. We have to find ways to harness the creativity and the resources of more South Africans to solve the problems and explore the opportunities that we face.

While I agree that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb caused by unemployment in our country, I do not believe that our main intervention point should be “job creation”(this to me is more a result). There are many other things that must also happen, and the government must acknowledge that they have to happen at the same time, or that sometimes we need some things to happen first. I wonder what would happen if we made “quality education from beginning of school to end” the highest priority? Would that not also create sustainable jobs in the long run?

I do believe that we should focus on getting our existing businesses to invest and grow as a first priority, with economic empowerment as a second priority and job creation as a result. The expanding gap in our gini coefficient is not caused by equity disparities, it is caused by differences in education.

I wish I could drive my kids to school without seeing the posters of the newspapers. We are being poisoned by a lack of clear and consistent leadership on many important economic points in this country that will greatly affect us in the short and the long term. And often it is not about leaders not making up their minds, it about lacking a will to take action. It seems like government leaders are afraid to upset their social partners, or to upset anybody out there!

It reminds me of the saying of David Maister that the essence of strategy is deciding when to say “no”! Just what exactly are we saying no to in South Africa.

My wish is that we say “yes” to some of the issues that MUST be addressed to strengthen our economy and unleash the entrepreneurship that we have (regardless of race, age, gender or social status). Let us get our entrepreneurs to be excited about this country and its potential. But let us also all work together on the huge social challenges that remain. And let us acknowledge that some people will make profit from this, but let us focus on getting the systems to work for our country.

In concluding. Our country is more competitive than we think. Please don’t believe everything you read. Come and visit some businesses with me if you need to be convinced. For now I am staying here, and I am investing here very carefully. But I am constantly evaluating my options.

For my business readers: You have to do whatever it takes to grow and expand your business, and to secure your ability to earn returns today AND tomorrow. The risks in South Africa is high, but the returns are higher.

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