In search of innovation in firms

Thank you for your concerned messages about my recent whereabouts.

In the last few weeks I have involved in running a RALIS (Rapid Appraisal of Local Innovation Systems) with my colleague and friend John Lawson. This process is focused around three Institutes of Advanced Tooling in South Africa that are based in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng. We are looking at the innovation system around the tooling sector around these 3 centres and their key customers.

A literature search on innovation reveals that product, process and organisational innovation (a.k.a business model innovation) is commonly identified in the academic literature. Innovation does not take place in a vacuum, and a RALIS methodology allows us to better understand the determinants of innovative behaviour by firms. It is important to recognise that while tinkering about in a workshop is great fun, a lot of innovation in firms and between firms cost a lot of money and time, and the outcomes are uncertain. Therefore, we have to understand how and why firms innovate, and how the Institutes of Advanced Tooling can play a role to support innovative behaviour by firms in the South African Tooling sector.

Now many of you will know that my interest in the tooling sector goes back a long time. Firstly, the tooling sector is truly an important sector, as toolmakers make the machine tools and production equipment that is used by the manufacturing sector to produce just about everything that you see around you. Secondly, the tooling sector was one of the two sectors that I used to analyse market failures in a knowledge intensive business service market in for my PhD Thesis.

In the next few posts I will share some of the insights from this exciting process with you!

A tool used to make picture frames

A tool used to make picture frames

Tools and moulds

Tools and moulds

Change in societies – part 2

In my work with trying to get the private sector to perform better, I often deal with sectors and their support institutions. Very often there are official or recognised industry bodies that are promoting the interests of industry. The least these industry bodies do is to organise an annual golf day, with some even playing an important role to lobby with government. The more organised sector bodies play an active role in sharing information, promoting standards amongst their members, or in some cases actively trying to develop their members or new markets. So these industry bodies often try to affect change in the way I described in the previous post.

But although these organisations are functional units themselves, they are actors trying to promote change in a small part of a society. This means that while they can affect change internal to their organisation through formal change or organisation development methods (using hierarchies, sanctions, incentives and process management), they have to also play a leading role in changing the society around them. The members of the industry body, their supporters and the broader innovation system related to this industry body is not physically part of the organisation, but forms a sub-group of the society around the industry body.

Several challenges arise in this process of trying to get a part of a society to change. The first challenge is that this process of upgrading the performance of industry is often not recognised as a change process. Secondly, societal change is a tough thing to do, and the body of knowledge on how to achieve change in societies is still in infancy. Thirdly, to affect change in a society it is important to appeal to the common identity or value system of the group being targeted, and very often both these factor are weak within industries. For example, some pharmaceutical companies consider themselves to be in the cosmetic sector, while others in health. This means that even if we classify a firm in a given sector, they may still identify more with another sub-group in the society.

For instance, in my earlier post I mentioned the importance of leaders using value systems to lead through example. How can this be related to trying to change the performance or behaviour of an industry? The answer is that we have to make positive examples of those that are early adopters, or leaders. By showing how some firms innovative, or overcome problems through innovative thinking, creates opportunities for others to imitate. Furthermore, industry bodies cannot really use incentives or sanctions to inspire change. However, they can play an extremely important role of communicating why behavioural change or improvement is necessary. If industry bodies cannot build a better case for why firms need to pull up their socks, cooperate better, compete more, innovate or invest, then nobody else will be able to achieve this until it is too late.

Thus, industry bodies have a critical role to play in using their organised members to inspire behavioural change or performance improvement. This process must be understood as a change process at the level of the society. The desired change must be seen in a systemic way to make sure that individuals are not just thinking about measurable improvements (such as time to assemble a gadget) but to also consider the societal change aspects (how to recognise the new values or how to know whom to follow)

Change in societies

The previous post described a typology of competitiveness that spans three levels. In order for individuals, hierarchies (e.g. firms) to improve their competitiveness or performance some kind of change of performance is required. While some of these changes are incremental and takes little effort, it may in many cases require a more concentrated effort to make a significant change. A few years ago Holger Nauheimer introduced me to three different levels of change that corresponds with the typology of competitiveness.

Firstly, there is change in the performance or behaviour of individuals. This may be related to an effort to improve competitiveness, or it may simply be a change of behaviour. Secondly, there are change processes in organisations in order to improve performance and competitiveness. Lastly, there may be changes at the level of the society that results in improved performance and competitiveness.

In the first instance, individuals try to change their performance or behaviour through a combination of self-motivation, self-discipline, practice and concentration. Whether the change is success depends largely on the self-control of the individual, and their own incentives and value system. For organisation to change may require small incremental improvements. In most cases a change process requires proper management, transparrent leadership, transparency and clear communication with staff. Management may decide to use a structured approach, drawing on topics such as organisational development, change management and project management. A combination of sanctions and incentives may be used to shape the behaviour of people in the organisation.

At the highest level, changes occur in societies. These changes typically affect the performance of individuals and organisation, and are also affected by the performance of individuals and organisations in the society. For leaders to influence the transformation in societies, clear leadership with strongly communicated values are required. In my imagination I can think of leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama at being particularly good at this. The challenge with change in societies is that it is difficult to manage, due to the fact that incentives and sanctions are weaker. There is also growing awareness of the psychology of crowds and how people in societies create and respond to signals of change. At the same time, we don’t have to think of whole societies changing. Malcolm Gladwell in “The tipping point” explains that when a small enough part of a society change, that it could lead to a tipping point where a larger scale change in behaviour takes place. This activism of change agents in societies are what seems to be keeping many societies in check at the moment, while at the same time promoting ongoing improvement and advancement.

From a systems perspective, the changes in individuals, organisations and societies should be recognised as complex human and social systems. There are many feedback loops, and delays between interventions and results. Furthermore, there are complex dynamics between different elements of the system. Therefore the results of decisions to change are often unpredictable, and care should be taken to create a habit of continous improvement combined with reflective exercises to make sure that the people in the system are able to respond to surprises and changes in the dynamics.

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