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

 

 

Instigating Innovation: Accelerating Experimentation in industry

When innovation centers, technology transfer centers, applied research platforms and other similar organisations want to help industry with innovation, one way could be to assist companies to experiment with new ideas. I will simply refer to these centers from here onward as innovation and technology support centers. In most of the places where I work these centers are often hosted by or associated with universities, applied research organisations or with technology transfer organisations.

One way to support industry to experiment is through various technology demonstration-like activities, allowing enterprises access to scarce and sophisticated equipment where they can try new ideas. In its simplest form, facilities allow companies to order samples to a certain specification, allowing a company to see whether a particular process can meet a specification or performance criteria. A slightly more intensive form of tech demonstration allows in visitors and a technology and its application is demonstrated (eyes only, no touching!). Very often equipment suppliers play this role, but in many developing countries equipment suppliers behave more like agents and can not really demonstrate equipment.

In Germany I saw demonstration facilities where the pro’s showed the enterprises how things works, and then they stood back allowing teams from a company to try things themselves.

A critical role of innovation support centers is to provide industry with comparative studies of different process equipment. For instance, in an innovation center supporting metal based manufacturers, providing industry with a comparison of the costs and uses of different kinds of CAD systems could be extremely valuable to industry.

Maker labs, Fablabs and similar centers all make it easier for teams that want to create or tinker with an idea to gain access to diverse technologies, reducing the costs of experimenting. However, the range of equipment in these labs are often not so advanced, but it can often be very diversified. In my experience these centers are very helpful to refine early idea formation and prototyping. However, to help manufacturers experiment with different process technologies, different kinds of materials, substitute technologies, etc. is the a binding constraint in many developing countries. The costs of gaining new knowledge is high, and due to high costs of failure, companies do not experiment.

Innovation support centers must be very intentional about reducing the costs of various kinds of experiments if they want manufacturers, emergent enterprises and inventors to try new ideas. These innovation centers can play a role by:

a) assisting companies to internally organize themselves better for experimentation internally

b) assisting many companies to organize themselves better for experimentation collaboratively

c) conducting transparent experiments on behalf of industry collectives

In my experience, graduates from science disciplines often understand how to conduct experiments because their coursework often involve time in a lab. They know basics like isolating variables, managing samples, measuring results, etc. However, engineering graduates often do not have this experience (at least in the countries where I am working most). For many engineering graduates, the closest they will ever get to an experiment is a CAD design, or perhaps a 3D printed prototype.

Therefore, it is necessary for a range of these innovation and technology support centres to assist companies at various hierarchical levels to experiment.

At the functional or operational level, organising for experimentation involves:

  • creating teams from different operational backgrounds,
  • creating multiple teams working on the same problem,
  • getting different teams to pursue different approaches
  • failing in parallel and then comparing results regularly
  • failing faster by using iterations, physical prototypes and mock ups
  • According to Thomke, results should be anticipated and exploited – even before the results are confirmed

At a higher management level, organising for experimentation involves:

  • Changing measurement systems to not only reward success, but to encourage trying new things (thus encouraging learning and not discouraging failure).
  • moving from expert opinion to allow naivety and creativity
  • Preparing for ideas and results that may point to management failures or inefficiencies elsewhere in the firm (e.g. improving a process may be hampered by a company policy from the finance department)

Getting multiple companies and supporting organisations to experiment together is of course a little bit harder. Management of different organisations have many reasons to hide failures, thus undermining collective learning. One way around this could be to use a panel or collective of companies to identify a range of experiments, and then these experiments are conducted at the supporting institution in a transparent way. All the results (success, failures and variable results) are carefully documented and shared with the companies. However, to get the manufacturers to use these new ideas may require some incentives. In my experience, this works much better in a competitive environment, where companies are under pressure to use new ideas to gain an advantage. In industries with poor dynamism and low competition, new ideas are often not leveraged because it simply takes too much effort to be different.

Promising ideas from experiments can be combined and integrated after several iterations to create working prototypes. Here the challenge is to help industries to think small. First get the prototype process to work at a small scale and at lower cost before going to large scale of testing several variables simultanously. An important heuristic is to prototype at as small as possible scale while keeping the key mechanical or scientific properties consistent. More about this in a later post. (Or perhaps some of the people I have helped recently would not mind sharing their experience in the comments?)

I know this is already a long post, but I will add that Dave Snowden promotes Safe2fail probes, where teams are forced to design a range of experiments going in a range of directions even if failure is certain in some instances. In my experience this really works well. It breaks the linear thinking that often dominates the technical and manufacturing industries by acknowledging that while there may be preferred solutions, alternatives and especially naive experiments should be included in the overall portfolio. To make this work it is really important that the teams report back regularly on their learning and results, and that all the teams together decide which solutions worked best within the context.

THOMKE, S.H. 2003.  Experimentation Matters: Unlocking the Potential of New Technologies for Innovation. Harvard Business Press.

 

Four functions of innovation and technology management

I want to continue the “Instigating Innovation” series (see opening post here, where 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.

Just to recap. I believe that many industries are struggling to modernize 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 technologies that a tech transfer institute or industry support organizations 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 want to focus on the four broad functions that must be managed strategically in every enterprise and supporting institution. Even if someone in the organization has the job title of Innovation Manager or Technology Manager these functions should still be visible throughout the organization. In other words, this is not somebodies job, but it helps if somebody coordinates these activities.

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

  1. Searching and scanning for new ideas and technologies, both within and beyond the organization. This includes looking at technologies that could affect the clients of the organization, and technologies that could disrupt markets and industries.
  2. Comparing, selecting and imagining how different technologies could impact the organization, its markets and its own innovation agenda.
  3. Next comes integrating or deploying the technology or innovation into the organization. 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 makes 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, organizations 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 “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 and that favors justifying past (sunk) investments? Or ask “How did you choose between two technologies?” and you will be surprised how little time was spent considering new business opportunities, or how few companies asked for onsite demonstrations or samples from their preferred technology providers.

I will refrain from being too critical of technology transfer institutions and industry supporting organizations, except to say that these organizations 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 is next, or what is outside of their vision and how it may affect their industry.

To bring it all together, technological upgrading of industries are plagued by many different market failures. These failures include the tendency NOT to invest due to high search 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 fluctuates, and technologies change faster and faster. Companies (and institutions) cannot afford to only kick start innovation management just before making a change (or when forced by external forces to make a decision), these functions must be managed strategically on a continues basis, both at the level of top management and within the different functions of the organization. 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 strategic perspective.

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

Reflecting on the correspondence I have received after my previous post and recent training sessions with manufacturers, I realize that people are looking for tools and tricks to “fix” innovation. Sometimes it is actually not even about innovation, but about making up for past decisions like 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 standardized into a job description or an area of responsibility. While this is possible in some contexts, I don’t find this approach to innovation so useful in the smaller and medium sized manufacturing firms and the research/technology institution space where I am working in.

For me, innovation is firstly a value, perspective on how organizations should be. When management says “we are an innovative organization” 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 bucketloads of advice to use, and consultants like me typically help organizations to choose a few tools and to then use them consistently and fully. I would dare to say that it is relatively easy to help companies that are already innovative to become more innovative.

The area that I am really intrigued by, are those organizations that are not innovative, or that would not describe themselves as having an innovative culture. Maybe they used to be innovative. Maybe they are innovative in some areas, but not in others. Maybe they had one or two tricks in the past that have now become old. These could be extremely competent organizations, like a research programme, a manufacturer of highly specialized industrial equipment, or an organization that simply design and manufacturers what their customers expressively tell them to make. Even if the outputs of these organizations can be described as “innovative”, these organizations themselves do not necessarily have innovative cultures that constantly are creating novel ideas, processes and markets. In my experience these organizations have technically brilliant people, but management is often not able to harness the genius, experience or creativity of their people. The main reason for this is not a lack of technique, tools or tricks. It is because of a lack of an innovative culture, leading to a lack of innovative purpose. These organizations are trapped. They are equipped for the past, but they are paralyzed by all the choices they have to make about the future. For management, it feels like everything that they have in place are inadequate and need 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, addressing succession planning, etc.

Improving the innovation culture of an organization 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 organization.

When working with organizations that must improve their innovative culture, motivational speeches, optimistic visions of the future, etc, are not useful and could in fact deepen the crises facing management. Instruments such as scenario planning, roadmaps, foresight techniques, or interventions like starting a R&D unit, a lean exercise to reduce waste, are all addressing the wrong issues and distract management from confronting the real issue that are stifling the organization. It narrows the ability of management and specialists to scan within and beyond the organisation for opportunities that could be used to change the way people work together, think together, solve problems together. The typical employee in a manufacturing or technical environment loves solving problems, love tinkering with novelty. But often management becomes so performance or target obsessed (lean?) that they don’t tap into the latent potential of their people.

Improving the innovation culture process starts with connecting management back with their people. It starts in the present, the now, not the future scenarios, not with using innovation techniques, 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 the management capability. It must look at the relations between people, between what people know and can do now (or in the recent past), and the potential the people see to make small improvements.

When management has the courage to decide to improve their innovative culture 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 what they can do to enable their employees to become more innovative on all fronts. Of course, management also face the risk that outdated management approaches that does not seek to empower employees to be creative will be exposed, and some tough decisions will have to be made.

For me the most promising approach to improving innovation in an organization is a organization development approach (not limited to design, not based on technical innovation instruments) based on complexity thinking, like our Systemic Insight approach. We are using instruments such as Sensemaker developed by Cognitive Edge to find areas for improvement, areas where relations between knowledge objects (knowledge, artificats, heuristics, etc) and people can be improved, starting from where the system is and then probing to understand what the immediate potential is for improvement. It allows people to take many small steps in parallel to improve the system and to push back the boundaries that have constrained the creativity in the organization.

In my view, building an innovation culture 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 organization, hence it cannot be driven from a management function like “innovation”.

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

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