How I teach the topic of innovation systems

IMG_2533One of my favorite subjects to teach is about the promotion of innovation systems. I love it because it combines abstract elements that most people grasp, and practical elements that most people enjoy. Most academic literature on innovation systems are quite abstract, and our approach to identifying ways to improve an innovation system from its current state is quite pragmatic. The literature on managing innovation is very broad and contains millions of tips, theories, myths – actually it is overwhelming for practitioners wanting to support industries, firms and organizations to become more innovative. Therefore I try to explain the principles of both innovation systems and innovation management so that people can re-organize and use what they already know, and know where to relate new knowledge that they may encounter along the way.

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Trying to explain how to get exploration and safe 2 fail experiments to work

I typically start by laying some foundations, often using puppets, props or cartoons to make it slightly less serious (I use sheep characters, don’t ask why):

While most people intuitively understand that there are different kinds of innovation, most practitioners are surprised by how different product innovation, process innovation and business model innovation are. A great discussion usually takes place when people reflect on why business model innovation (Tim Kastelle states that it is easy but really hard) is really what hampers growth and productivity improvements, but how most industrial and innovation policies typically targets mostly product and process improvements.

Now that the foundation is in place, I typically move on to the more abstract issue of innovation systems. After explaining the definition (see the bottom of the post) that I like most, it is necessary to explain the importance of the dynamic between the different elements. It is natural to create checklists of institutions and actors and tend to forget that even in economic development weaker actors that interact more dynamically can trump first class institutions that are not accessible to most people that need support.

The importance of building the technological capability beyond the leading firms is important. I have written many posts about this so will not repeat this here, but for me the systemic nature of innovation and knowledge accumulation is critical. But typically we use 6 lines of inquiry to investigate how the dynamism in the system can be improved. There are four really important aspects which include:6 Four lines of inquiry_web

 

The agenda concludes with different ways practitioners and policy makers can intervene in the innovation system to improve the dynamics, the flow of information, the exchange of knowledge and the increased innovation appetite of entrepreneurs.

Duration

To present this agenda can take anything from 2.5 hours to three days. When the participants are experienced in diagnosing enterprises and public institutions, the exercises tend to be more meaningful and fun. When nobody in the room knows anything about the problems companies face on a day to day basis this kind of training is much harder. When I have more time then topics such as mapping formal knowledge flows, detecting unmet sophisticated demand, collaborating for research and development, etc can be included.

I have been presenting this session is various formats at international training events like our Annual Summer Academy in Germany, at different academic departments in universities. I frequently present this in some form to science, technology and industry government officials. In other occasions I have presented this to practitioners, development staff and even to the management of a university wanting to become more innovative itself.

The definition I work from:

The definition of innovation systems that I work from is the one of the earliest definitions on this subject. 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.

The textbooks I teach from:

My favourite textbook that I use when teaching at universities remains FAGERBERG, J., MOWERY, D.C. & NELSON, R.R. 2005.  The Oxford handbook of innovation. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

If I have more of a business management audience, then I prefer to use a book with more innovation and technology management tools in it such as DODGSON, M., GANN, D. & SALTER, A. 2008.  The Management of Technological Innovation. Oxford University Press.

Of course, this agenda follows the logic of my own book on the promotion of innovation systems that I have published!

 

 

Instigating innovation in traditional industries

The average manufacturer in a developing country grapples with the notion of innovation. That is why they are often called “traditional”, although almost each industry would have one or two outliers. While governments, like South Africa, offers incentives to stimulate innovation, most manufacturers do not identify with the term the way the governments use it. For instance, when governments use the word “innovation” they often mean “invention“, in other words something that can be protected, copyrighted and owned (more about the differences between innovation and invention here). While I understand the argument for patenting and protection I think this narrow definition of innovation is inhibiting many industries from increasing their productivity and competitiveness by copying what works from elsewhere (catching up). It also fails to recognize that in many value chains the manufacturers themselves make components or sub-systems that goes into overarching architectures (defined by standards, compliance, specifications), so their design authority is limited in scope.

Innovation_invention

Herewith a list of synonyms from thesaurus.com for innovation that I have assessed to see how enterprises might understand or respond to these words:

  • Modernization – lots of enterprises dream about this but often do not have the many nor the organizational capability to pull it off (one day, next time)
  • contraption – many innovations and most inventions result in one of these. You can see them standing in the corners in most factories
  • Mutation, addition, alteration, modification – this is what most innovations in traditional industry would look like. They are doing this all the time as their machines gets older, but this behavior is mostly not recognized nor accelerated
  • newness, departure, deviation – the bolder enterprises with more financial and organizational capability might try these, but it takes capital to maintain.

Most people understand innovation as an outcome, but the word itself is a noun that implies change and novelty. It is about a shift, even if it is often incremental. The reason why so many of our enterprises here in South Africa are not deemed to be innovative is because they struggle (or perhaps do not have the organizational capability) to manage several simultaneous change processes. As Tim Kastelle posted some years ago, change is simple but not easy. Although this is often described as a technology problem it is really a management problem (see some older posts here). I would go even further and state that in many industries the margins are so thin that even those enterprises that have a reasonable management structure would struggle to finance many innovations at the same time.

However, in my experience of visiting more than 50 manufacturers every year I am always stunned and awed by how ingenious these companies are. They keep old machines running, often modifying them on the fly. They operate with fluctuating and unreliable electricity, inconsistent water pressure and often hardly any specialist support. What policy makers often do not recognize is that in developing countries it takes a lot of management time and capacity just to keep the throughput going. The time and effort to go explore “change” beyond what is necessary in the short to medium term is very expensive. The costs of evaluation new ideas, new technologies, new markets and better suppliers are all far more expensive in developing countries than elsewhere. Yet, at the heart of innovation is the ability to combine different inputs, different knowledge pools, different supporting capabilities with different market possibilities.

There are two implications for innovation promotion practitioners.

  1. The process of instigating innovation must start with recognizing how companies are innovating NOW. How are they modifying their processes (and products), and how much does it cost? What are the risks that are keeping them from introducing more novelty? Perhaps use the Horizons of Innovation (my next post) to create a portfolio of innovation (change) activities that can be identified at the enterprise or industry levels.
  2. It is hard if not impossible for different manufacturers in most countries to figure out what others are struggling to change at a technological level. Use your ability to move between enterprises to identify opportunities to turn individual company costs into public costs (this is often cheaper). Do not take the innovation away from enterprises, but use your meso level technology institutions to try and accelerate the learning or to reduce the costs of trying various alternatives. Be very open with the results to enable learning and dissemination of ideas.

The process of instigating innovation must start with recognizing where manufacturers are naturally trying to change, just like a change process in an organization must start with understanding current behavior, culture and context. Somehow innovation have become so associated with a contraptions and narrow views on technology that the organizational development body of knowledge and management of change have been left behind.

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!

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