Unlocking knowledge in organisations

A favorite topic that I love to talk, think and write about is the knowledge that is lurking around in organisations, often untapped.

Last week, the University of Stellenbosch Business School, where I am a member of faculty in the Executive Development programme, published an article I wrote in its thought leader newsletter. It is titled “Unlocking knowledge in organisations to enable innovation”. What started off as a 1200 word article was reduced to 700 words by Linton Davies, the wordsmith that always helps me to better express my ideas when I write formal publications. I think this article as it stands now must be the most I have ever said in only 700 words!

I am really proud of this article in its current short form. It started off many years ago as a much a more complicated module in my innovation systems training session. Now it is a practical workshop format that I use often in organisations supporting innovation, but increasingly in businesses, government programmes and even NGOs.

It is informed by evolutionary and complexity thinking, and is thus in line with my current research and the principles that I now pursue and value. Of course, a lot of extremely important theory is left out in this form, but by helping managers become more aware of how the inhibit or promote knowledge generation in their organisations is for me already a great start.

 

Instigating Innovation: Tech push fallacy is still alive

Let me continue with the Instigating Innovation series. I will slowly shift my attention to the technology intermediaries, research centres and technology transfer organisations that exist in many countries to overcome persistent market failures in the private sector. Yes, I know it is a shock for some, but these centres do not really exist to promote the technical careers or the of these people in these centres, nor to promote a specific technology in itself. From a systemic perspective, these kinds of technological institutions exist because they are supposed to overcome pervasive causes of under investment in technology (and skills development) and patterns of poor performance of enterprises. Economists describe the last two phenomena as the result of market failures, mainly caused by information asymmetries, a lack of public goods, high coordination costs, economies of scale and a myriad of other challenges faced by enterprises (hierarchies), markets and networks.

The challenge is that very often the technology these intermediaries promote become an objective in itself. The technology, embodied in equipment, processes and codified knowledge, becomes the main focus. So now we see technology centres being created to promote Industry 4.0, or 3D printing, or environmentally friendly technology. While I am the first to admit that I am helping many of my clients come to grips with industry 4.0, additive manufacturing or environmentally friendly technology, we must not confuse means with ends.

About 20 years ago, my late business partner Jorg Meyer-Stamer and his colleagues at the German Development Institute developed the Systemic Competitiveness framework. Many of my posts on technological capability and innovation systems are based on this Systemic Competitiveness, but I wont go into this right now (perhaps I can do that in a later post), but will only state this this model has greatly influenced my thinking of how technological capability can be developed in order to upgrade, improve or stimulate the competitiveness and innovative behavior of enterprises and state institutions. In one of my current research contracts I had to retrace the evolutionary economics origins of this framework and I found the following paragraph in one of the early publications:

“A further fallacy also played a role in the past: the establishment of technology institutions was based on the technology-push model, according to which breakthroughs in basic research provide impulses to
applied research, which these in turn pass on to product development. In fact, however, research and development is for the most part an interactive process; and it is frequently not scientific breakthroughs
that impel technological progress, but, on the contrary, technological breakthroughs that induce scientific research, which then seeks to interpret the essence and foundations of a technology already in use.”

What struck me was the past tense in the first sentence. So many of the technology institutions I am working with are still established on these same grounds. A technology push model. Actually, much of economic development has the same mindset, a solution-push model. It implies that clever solutions are developed in a clinical and carefully managed environment, and then is made relevant to business people (as Jorg often said “stupid business people”) through iterations of “simplification” and “adaptation”. Don’t get me wrong. I am the first to promote scientific discovery. But this has its place. Modernisation of industry must start from the demand side:

  • where is the system now?
  • What is preventing companies from competing regionally and internationally?
  • What kind of failures, both in business models but also in markets are repeating over and over again?
  • What kind of positive externality can we create?
  • How can we reduce the costs for many enterprises to innovate and become more competitive?

Only then do you start asking what kind of technological solutions, combinations, coordination effort or demonstration is needed. Perhaps no new equipment or applied research is needed, maybe something else must first happen. Some non technical things that I have seen work are:

  • mobilising a group of enterprises into a discovery process of common constraints and issues
  • arranging exchange between researchers, academics and business people at management and operational levels
  • hosting interesting events that provides technical or strategic inspiration to the private sector
  • helping companies overcome coordination costs
  • making existing technology that is not widely used available to industry so that they can try it
  • placing interns at enterprises that have different skills than the enterprise use at the moment
  • arranging visits to successful enterprises; and many more.

The truth of the matter is that the innovative culture of the technology institution, and its openness to learn from the industries it is working with are much better predictors of whether the industries around them will be innovative. If the technology institutions are bureaucratic, stale or rigid, nobody in industry will be inspired by them to try new ideas, new technologies, explore applying technology into new markets, etc. Just like we can sense when we arrive (or contact) a succesful enterprise, so we can all sense when we have arrived at an innovative technology institution. It looks different, there is a vibe. It is information rich, everywhere you look you can see ideas being played with, things being tried, carcasses of past experiments can be seen in the corner.

I can already hear some of my customers leading technology centres reminding me that I must consider their “funding mandate from government” and their “institutional context in universities” as creating limitations in how creative they can be, and just how much demand orientation they can risk taking. Yes. I know this. In the end, leaders must also create some space between the expectations of their funders (masters?), their teams and their target industries. In fact, how leaders balance these demands and what is needed by their clients, students and staff can probably be described as business model innovation. If you cannot get funding from government for what you believe is required, just how creative are you to raise this funding through other (legal) means?

We have seen over and over again that it is not the shiny new piece of equipment in the technology centre that inspires industry; but the culture of the technology centre, the vibe, the willingness to try crazy ideas to make even old stuff work better or combining old and new. Ok, I agree, the shiny equipment excites geeks like me, but this is not all that matters.

My main point is this. Technology Institutions should focus on understanding the patterns of performance or under-performance in the industries and technology domains they are working in, and should then devise innovative products, services and business models to respond to these. This means working back from the constraint to what is possible, often through technology. To be effective in helping entrepreneurs overcome the issues they are facing would require that these technology institutions are innovative to the core. Not just using innovative technology, or offering some innovative services, but also in how these institutions are managed, how they discover what is needed and in how the collaborate with other institutions and the private sector.

To instigate innovation in the private sector, publicly funded technology institutions need to be innovative themselves.

 

Source:

ESSER, K., HILLEBRAND, W., MESSNER, D. & MEYER-STAMER, J. 1995.  Systemic competitiveness. New patterns for industrial development. London: Frank Cas. Page 69

 

 

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