Building institutions that supports knowledge flows to industry

It sounds like a cliche to state that manufacturing has changed a lot in the last 30 years. Yet people often say this without thinking of how it has changed. It is not just about the size of our manufacturers, or the increased competition from Asia or elsewhere. It is also not about the sophisticated equipment and the tremendous range of products that are now available to consumers. An important aspect of manufacturing change is the dependence on knowledge from internal and external experts, or Knowledge Intensive Business Services (KIBS). These knowledge experts include engineers, product developers, process experts, industry experts or logistical experts. While in a country like Germany, there are many public, academic and private specialists to go around and assist manufacturers to tweak their processes or solve specific problems, in developing countries we have a bigger challenge. Knowledge intensive services are prone to several market failures, and therefore it is important that we consider the role, importance and challenges that these knowledge services have.

Let me just state upfront that despite my PhD research focusing on the importance of knowledge services in the manufacturing sector, I am hesitant to treat the “knowledge economy” as something separate as it is often done in the South. The increasing importance of many different kinds of knowledge throughout the economy is pervasive. Just ask a commercial farmer in Africa how they have had to change their farming practices in the last 3 decades. It is almost unthinkable that 30 years ago a person could start commercial farming without a tertiary education or at least one highly experienced supervisor. The same goes for manufacturing.

There is a big difference between generic Business Development Services (BDS) and Knowledge Intensive Services. While with BDS our problem is to get good all-rounders to provide services to enterprises where it is very hard to determine the real value of the service offering, in Knowledge Intensive Services the service is very specific to a certain (technical) problem, it is deep knowledge and the value (and cost) is usually very clear. Firms that know what they are doing need knowledge intensive service providers to fill in the gaps where deep knowledge is needed, a BDS provider is typically out of their depth with a manufacturing enterprise that are trying to be competitive.

  • The first challenge we have with intensive or specific knowledge is scale. When just a few manufacturers use more advanced equipment in a country there is a good chance that few service providers, experts or technicians will be available. In market failure terms, this is called an indivisibility (you cant divide the cost of the expert easily between different enterprises, or just take a small piece of the expert). It could also be about scale (not enough business to justify the emergence of a specialized service provider). It is often difficult for manufacturers to coordinate their use of expert service providers, or to coordinate the procurement of similar equipment that makes the development of a pool of service providers possible. This is called a coordination failure and it is pervasive in our developing economies.
  • A second challenge is that many manufacturers are hesitant to search outside their firm. This is often due to costs (which includes the time spent to find the right expert), but also because for so long manufacturers had everything they needed in-house. In South Africa, many of our older firms are hesitant to use “consultants” because they don’t trust them. This could be described as a market failure around asymmetrical information or adverse selection.

One way to increase the availability of knowledge intensive service provision in a developing country is through the connection between academic institutions, public funded industry support programmes and industries themselves. This requires that technical or knowledge experts are able to be released from certain teaching or research duties to work with firms. This is often very difficult due to the high student load in many of our African universities. I am often astounded by the world class research capacity and expertise that are hidden inside universities that are desperately needed in industry. This failure has many names, but in market failure terms it is called a public goods failure, in other words, public funds are not used to overcome persistent market failures in industry.

A second and parallel strategy should be to make sure that the Meso level organizations (which include universities and higher education institutions) are concentrating on overcoming the market failures in industries and in firms. In developing countries these Meso organizations, meant to address specific performance issues at firm or industry level, are more focused on securing and spending national (or international) funding than to become valuable and responsive to the needs of industry. To get the Meso organizations focused on the plight of firms requires an industrial and modernization policy that is focused on building the right economic and industry supporting institutions – this cannot be done just by merely implementing projects or programmes – it must be systemic. With right I mean relevant and equipped with high level experts that understand and can relate to the issues in industry.

This phenomena of the disconnect between public knowledge services and the need of industry is more widespread than you would think in our developing countries. It is a public good failure that undermines the well being of our economies. I believe this is also an ideological failure, because governments tries to use their funds to provide incentives or prioritize certain kinds of behavior both in the public sector and in the private sector. Instead of responding to what is emerging or what is needed in the private sector, the public sector tries to prioritize what it believes to be ideal. The result is that the firms that are most able to create jobs and wealth are left without public support.

In Mesopartner we will be working on consolidating our experience in bottom up industrial policy. We will work closely with research organizations and development partners around the world to strengthen and develop a body of knowledge on how some of these issues can be addressed in the developing world. We do this by developing a theme where instruments, concepts, theories and practice can be integrated. If you are interested in participating in this process, or have experience to share, please give us a shout.

I have previously written about this some years ago in the post about the service sector  and about the increased importance of knowledge intensity here.

Business model innovation in manufacturers in developing countries

The topic of Business model innovation is receiving increasing attention as a solution to surviving in turbulent economic times. The discussion on business model innovation to me seems to be driven by finding ways to respond to opportunities, unmet needs, creating new markets or thinking up novel ways of doing business. Many articles on business model innovation contains phrases like “responding to change”, “rapid” and “creating opportunities”. From my experience of engaging with many typical manufacturers in developing countries they don’t identify with this literature. It seems like many firms are able to absorb external changes, partly by ignoring them or simply by being to paralyzed to change. I think in some instances this is also their saving grace in the short term, although in the long term it might erode the competitiveness and dare I use the word “resilience” of the firm.

From my weekly engagements with business, it seems like we need to get our industries in developing countries to better respond to semi-permanent or emerging long term framework conditions. It reminds me of the story of the frog in the pot of water on the stove; because the heat (negative framework conditions) is increasing slowly most firms do not realize the pending disaster of not making these external forces part of core business strategy. I think it is called conditioning.
What many of the manufacturers that I am engaged with are struggling with is finding ways of responding to some of the obstacles, irritations or constraints in their environment that seems to become established or permanent features over time. In South Africa, many manufacturers are waiting, hoping, or lobbying for electricity prices to come down, for labour to become more reasonable, for government to curb the influx of more competitive imports, for inputs to become cheaper, for government investment grants to increase, etc. At the same time, the average size of orders are going down as other countries are able to manufacture the same quality at a much lower landed cost.
From visiting more than 50 manufacturers in traditional manufacturing sectors like valve, pump and industrial equipment this year I can see that those manufacturers that take these external factors as drivers for change or key considerations in their strategy are thriving. While the rest of manufacturers seems to be making mainly small incremental adjustments, hoping that something in the external environment would change returning them to their previous levels of competitiveness. The problem is that too few firms have the will to respond to some of the slow moving changes in their environment. Those firms that do change their business models to adjust to the prevailing circumstances are doing well despite still being in the same country as those firms that are simply trying to cope.
So what I would like to see is a dialogue on how to use business model innovation to deal with these semi-permanent constraints in the external economic environment as drivers for innovation within firms. To me it seems that many manufacturers do not feel driven by opportunity anymore, especially when they perceive the prevailing economic and political conditions to be negative or anti business.
In the field of promoting innovation systems we have hardly come up with systemic models on how to induce widespread change in how business models are designed, created, changed or even shelved. At the moment the topic still seems to driven by dialogue in business schools, or by advocates of social responsibility.

2013 – Setting some direction

Perhaps I am taking a risk by publishing some of my resolutions for 2013 here. But this post will probably help me to connect my own learning with those of my close friends, partners and fellow adventurers that follow my blog.

During 2012 my focus shifted strongly into the manufacturing sector where I am working on improving innovation systems, building domestic  industries, strengthening the role of universities and research organizations to create new platforms from where to compete. This is stimulating work where I combine my interests in engineering and science, with soft issues such as networks in industry, market signals and systems and innovation. I also find that my ability to work both with business people, academics and researchers is handy. Take a look at my page Stimulating industrialization, science and innovation to see some of the activities I have been involved with in 2012 in this area.

In 2013 I want to increase my focus on the manufacturing sector. Key research questions for me are:

  • How does competencies learned by organizations such as firms become developmental platforms for industries?
  • How can I use the insights from complexity to accelerate the formation of new industries, new markets and deeper industrialization?
  • How can new technologies, questions, ideas be used to upgrade traditional industries?
  • What is the role of universities and research organizations to upgrade the industries around them?
  • How can learning and experiments in firms be disseminated to accelerate exploration and exploitation of ideas?

As much of my work in this area is focused on Southern Africa, I am also keen to see how some of the insights from here can be tried elsewhere.

As far as my academic research is concerned (I have a post doctoral research fellowship position with the Vaal University of Technology), I must concentrate more on my academic publications and feeding the insights gained in working with industry back into the formal university system. Here my work will be focused on understanding how technological competencies can be created or leveraged to create new markets and new competencies.Technological ompetency map In the image to the right I show the technological choices that a particular group of enterprises that I am working with face.

Of course, the manufacturing sector is a clumsy way to draw a boundary around a system, so just to put some of your concerns to rest, I am still committed to the knowledge and service sectors, technological intermediaries and the local economies in developing countries. I have found that these are useful perspectives to look at manufacturing activities and how it evolves. Manufacturing to me is not only about making products, it is also about matching competence with opportunity within a given societal context. It connects wealthy people with poor people, clever dreamers with needy users, highly qualified people with poorly educated people, nerds with geeks, domestic ideas with international realities.

What makes my approach different is that I am working from demanding customers and markets back to the basic operations, and not from suppliers towards markets. I am not doing marketing promotion, I am developing supply side based on current and future needs. It means that I will help to better articulate demand criteria, and will then try to shape the institutional system and manufacturing capacities to work towards these needs. Central to all of this are developmentally minded organizations like universities, industry bodies and even consultancies that wants to develop a particular sub sector, technological competence or outcome.

In 2013 I undertake not to be a problem solver, but to be a better facilitator of deeper thinking, an adviser that assists my customers and counterparts to better recognize patterns, constraints and opportunities. I will assist my customers to become change agents within the systems that they work in.

Lastly, I want to work more with systemic thinking and complexity. Watch this space for some announces about a new podcast series and a new research field in collaboration with Marcus Jenal

My activities in the last months

So what have I been up to in the last few months?

At the moment I am working with several industry organizations and development institutions in South Africa on topics that are all interrelated around the topic of upgrading of our manufacturing sector. This involves working both on the softer issues such as facilitation of processes, building trust, identifying patterns, mobilizing stakeholders and lobbying for change to both government and the private sector. Another dimension of this work is to assist meso level organizations created to stimulate upgrading and competitiveness of industries to design better and more relevant programmes, developed organizational plans, and diagnosing industries to find systemic intervention points. I am involved in several cluster development programmes, and I am also working quite a bit with universities to better respond to the (often unarticulated) needs of industries. Lastly, I am assisting several large international and national buyers to develop their South African supply chains. This work is partly fueled by the public sectors increased emphasis on localisation.

For me all of this can be summarized under the heading of upgrading innovation systems, and building new industrial competencies. Sometimes I describe it as modernizing industries, or to stimulate technological upgrading of industries and regions. My customers do not often use these words.I thought it would be interesting to perhaps share with you how some of my current customers describe the work I am doing. I will not share their details due to the sensitivity of the work I am sometimes involved in.

The universities I work with describe my work as :

  • stimulating industry- academia relations around upgrading and regional innovation,
  • facilitating the improvement of technology transfer,
  • developing industry partnerships, research strategies and applied research programmes. This involves improving innovation within the academia
  • improving innovation systems that the university forms part of by designing appropriate support programmes

The industry development organizations I work with describe my work as:

  • facilitating the improved competitiveness of industries,
  • facilitating change processes in industry in order to unlock new markets and improve competitiveness,
  • developing public sector programmes that are responsive to the needs of industries.
  • High level policy advocacy and industry partnerships

For the government officials that I work with my work is:

  • developing industry – government partnerships,
  • supporting the development of local industries,
  • brokering partnerships,
  • shaping policy based on industry insight and
  • developing practical development programmes.

Why do I share this with you? The insight for me is that I am using a limited number of tools (mainly facilitation skills, some insight into manufacturing and technology transfer, insights into innovation systems, organizational development and a fearless approach to engaging with industry leaders) to work with a largely overlapping set of stakeholders.

Although I think that I am basically doing the same kind of work, my customers describes my work in completely different ways, even if ALL my current customers have the same objectives (they all want to improve manufacturing competitiveness and grow the local industries).

This work is all based on process consulting and I am very happy that I have a complementary set of customers that are all eager to work together to achieve our common goals. The work is very intensive and I am also grateful that I have contracts that have sufficient time and sufficient flexibility in so that my work can be supportive and responsive to the people I work with.

 

Note 1: Right at the moment I hardly work for any donors agencies in South Africa, mainly because private sector development and especially innovation system promotion in South Africa is not very high on their agendas. I do however assist with capacity building, coaching and programme design work occasionally.

Note 2: One important contract is with GFA on behalf of GIZ where I am supporting several technology stations at universities to improve their technological services to the industries they work with. This work is included in the descriptions above about the work I do for universities.

Note 3: The work I am currently doing is all possible due to the experience I have gained by working for organizations such as the GIZ (then GTZ) on issues such as innovation systems, university industry relations and local/regional economic development.

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.

Stimulating the formation of manufacturing business in South Africa

My international readers must please forgive my focus on my beloved home country in this post. But this is a topic that is close to my heart that we have to resolve in South Africa to secure the wealth and prosperity that our nation so desire. But perhaps you have faced the same challenges wherever you work.

I receive many requests to assist with the ‘creation of industrial businesses’ in South Africa. As this is a topic that is close to my heart I usually respond very enthusiastically to these requests. But in the last year or two the reality of the difficulty of establishing these kinds of businesses have dawned on me. Let me take you through my thinking.

Lets look at what it takes to start a manufacturing business. Firstly, you need an entrepreneur. This person must take the lead and mobilize and marshal the right resources, people and processes to take advantage of some opportunity. I think you would all agree with this statement. But if you unpack this sentence then you find three potential bottlenecks:

a)      you need an entrepreneur;

b)      this person must take the lead and mobilize the right resources, people and processes

c)       you need an viable opportunity

Point a) is a challenge. To start a manufacturing business the entrepreneur stands a far better change if the individual has technical or scientific competency or experience in the industry. With the current incentive environment many black or female candidates with the required competencies are better of in the corporate world, where large salaries and other perks are available. With the shortage of experienced or highly qualified advisors, most white candidates that meet this requirement have incentives to rather provide consulting services to government or large business. Many development programmes try to work around this problem by taking young inexperienced people, or even worse, vulnerable unemployed people, and try to establish them as entrepreneurs despite the fact that they would prefer employment rather than being a business person. I can go on for pages about this issue, but let me stop here.

Point b) is a second challenge. The role of an entrepreneurs goes beyond having a bold vision or being able to spot a great opportunity. The entrepreneur must mobilize resources and recruit sufficiently experienced or qualified people to work towards exploiting the opportunity. It doesn’t end here, as the most important role of the entrepreneur is to use their leadership skills to organize their mobilized resources and people into business and manufacturing processes. The latter is really difficult if the entrepreneur does not have management or manufacturing experience. Of course, we can all think of examples of individuals who have built viable businesses without management or technical skills. These cases are rare for many reasons, and it often depends on the character of the individual and the tolerance of their customers to pay for the steep learning curve that small under-resourced or under-managed enterprises have to go through. Say for instance, an entrepreneur can secure enough capital to start a manufacturing business, but they do not have any manufacturing experience. Unless they are able to recruit and trust a suitable qualified and experienced person that can take the responsibility on the technical side of the business, their investment is doomed. The inverse is also true. When a person that is technically competent starts a business, they might have trouble with the management of the administration and business processes of the enterprise unless they are able to recruit staff with sufficient experience to reduce the risks on that side of the business.

The third point is around the opportunity, and the ability of small enterprises to pursue them. One of the huge business process innovations of the last decades is the emergence of franchises. In a franchise, a proven and tested business system is replicated throughout a market. Think of a car-rental business. If you wanted to start a car rental business 15 years ago, you would need finance for several cars, staff at your outlet, technical staff, and cleaning staff. Now the likes of AVIS and others have mastered their business and technical systems to the point where a franchise in a small town can use tried and tested methods to run an office. The person managing the branch or franchise earns far less than you would be satisfied with, and plugs into a national (or even global) administrative system that manages salaries, vehicles, insurance and logistics. It would take a very brave business person to try and compete with such a hugely refined and efficient business system. And if you think of it carefully, then some of the basic rules of economies is that these kinds of system makes a society wealthier, as the productivity of each person working in that franchise branch is much higher than it would have been in your independent outfit. To compete against these business innovations (the innovation of a decentralized management and administrative system backup up by a highly efficient logistical system) you would need to have a highly differentiated business with many innovations. I am not saying it is impossible, I am simply saying it will not be easy.

OK, that is a service business example. For an entrepreneur to pursue the manufacturing of almost any product, they need suppliers, service providers, process information, marketing channels. The days where a single business making a completely integrated product are over, as these opportunities are often only profitable in a large scale. Manufacturing now takes place in ‘value networks’. So if I wanted to manufacture speakers, I have to establish myself within these networks. Despite the fact that almost an electronic student knows how to create a set of speakers, without knowledge of these networks and industrial systems it would be very difficult to establish a profitable and competitive speaker manufacturing business. So unless my product is completely unique or differentiated, I have to depend on existing systems to build my business.

Why are there so few serious entrepreneurs pursuing detergent mixing, or candle making or many of the other business formats that are often promoted by small enterprise promotion agencies? I think the main reason, is that the opportunity to build a business where a viable return on investment can be secured is limited. This means that vulnerable people are being helped to establish businesses where most sensible investors would not even venture into. If anyone can copy your business model even without acquiring the right skills or technical competencies, then how would you secure your investment?

We need to rephrase the objective of small enterprise development in South Africa. What we need to promote in South Africa is that experienced and technically competent people working in large corporates must have incentives to quit their secure jobs in order to pursue higher risk business opportunities. We need people with management skills, or with scarce technical skills, to start tinkering and designing new businesses, new products, new management systems in order to gain an advantage or an ability to secure a return on investment. Let these people create the jobs for the people that are lacking entrepreneurial skills or technical skills.

Let me know what you think!

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