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.

 

Tech transfer in South Korea

Four of the partners in Mesopartner are at the TCI Conference in Daegu, South Korea. On the 3rd of November we all went in different directions on excursions to various clustering initiatives in the region.

I signed up for the mechatronics tour. I want to share a few observations about the technology transfer institutions that we visited.

Firstly, technology transfer into the region is focused on stretching existing enterprises. You would think this is obvious. In South Korea, the different levels of government contribute large amounts of funding to buy the latest and most modern equipment that are placed in public institutions. This technology is often identified by leading firms like Samsung. Important criteria for technology selection includes its “platform” ability, meaning that it can be used in several industries. The Koreans refer to this as “convergence”. A second criteria is that it must enable competitive products to be developed with a strong focus on exports.

Secondly, cost recovery is a low priority. At the institutions that we visited they often charge as little as 20% for the use of the latest equipment, basically recovering costs of consumables. The facilities cannot handle production orders, but are used mainly to demonstrate applications or for making prototypes. The facilities consist of open spaces, open labs and cutting edge testing facilities.

Thirdly, the institutions support smaller companies in R & D and product development, often on-site. It struck me that the institutions realized they have to “take” the technology to industry. While most of the effort is focused on new products and new enterprises, there is still on objective of helping incumbent more traditional companies to innovate.

Lastly, we visited a Creative Economy cluster initiative. It was not focused on arty projects, but on hardcore technology like making micro-robots, smartphone attachments, etc. Companies could bid for space (literally a 15m2 space in a modern office environment). There is a strong emphasis on smaller down-scaled technology applications. Entrepreneurs that are selected to join the incubator have 6 months free rent, lots of technical and market development support, and networking and exchange with other incubatees are compulsory. Large companies like Samsung, LG, etc have technicians and coaches on site (24/7) to support any enterprise on almost any topic. Thus the resources of large companies that are partnered with these centres are made available to help smaller startups.

Today the conference starts. Already I feel like I have learned enough to justify the trip from Pretoria to Deagu.

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.

Link: Why dont they want what we know they need by Charles Kenny

Technology: what do we mean?

In development practice reference is often made to technology as being about hardware (equipment) and software. “Software” is borrowed from information technology to mean the invisible stuff that makes things work, in other words knowledge especially in its coded (tacit) form. This is clumsy. There is a close relationship between innovation and technology, and that is why this confusion matters and should be addressed.

Frequently, innovation is thought of as a new product or hardware artefact, or an improved process made possible by new technology. This error limits technology to hardware, and neglects the other aspects of technology.  It is necessary to understand technology from a much broader perspective.

As alluded to earlier, the narrow definition of technology refers to technical artefacts or hardware (with some supporting documents and instructions). However, complementary factors, without which the employment of technical artefacts makes no sense, are above all qualification, skills and know-how (of the people who work with artefacts), and organisation (i.e. the process of tying artefacts into social contexts and operational sequences). The organization part refers to being able to optimize the way the technology is integrated into other processes, and also how other processes must be changed to exploit the advantages of the new organization.

Meyer-Stamer (1997) formulates three conclusions based on the definition provided above:

(1)    Technology should not be seen in isolation from the environment in which it emerges, or from the organisational structures in which it is used. Technology does not come about in a vacuum; it always develops in concrete social contexts. It is therefore never neutral, and is always developed on the basis of given (economic, social, political) interests.

(2)    Technology often embodies organisational factors. A closed process in the chemical industry or a production line in the metal-processing industry, for instance, consists not only of technical knowledge of individual processing sequences, it also implies organisational knowledge about possible transitions between these sequences.

(3)    Any narrow definition of technology, looking at hardware only, accompanied by the view and approach that go along with it, can thus be tantamount to a guarantee that projects will fail – in development cooperation no less than in many international high-tech corporations.

In the discussion on development policy and the field of development cooperation in recent years, there has been a general acceptance of the broad definition of technology, one that does justice to the problems outlined here. This definition includes four components originally described by Enos (1991:169) illustrated in the image on the right:

(1)    Technical hardware, i.e. a specific configuration of machines and equipment used to produce a good or to provide a service.

(2)    Know-how, i.e. scientific and technical knowledge, formal qualifications and tacit knowledge.

(3)    Organisation, i.e. managerial methods used to link hardware and know-how that includes integrating all the elements into an organization.

(4)    The product, i.e. the good or service as an outcome of the production process.

 

The advantage of the broad definition is that it can help to avoid barren discussions in that it prevents, for instance, any equating of technical artefacts with technology. To this extent it mirrors experience gained, for example, in development cooperation – in view of this definition it is obvious that technology cannot be transferred in package form by for instance combining hardware with manuals and some field training. At the same time it is, against this background, easier to comprehend that technology is involved whenever production goes on – even when seemingly primitive technical artefacts are utilised in the process, for “no country is without technology, not even the most primitive” (Enos, 1991:169). So even a simple manual activity like using a shovel to dig a deep hole involves multiple elements and processes of different technologies. However, the absorptive capacity of countries, regions within countries and between different firms differs vastly.

Practically speaking, this means that practitioners must be careful when describing technology in relation to hardware that they do not neglect the other dimensions. For instance, when trying to understand where ‘new technology’ comes from in a value chain, make sure that respondents are not only identifying equipment suppliers. A second line of enquiry may be to get respondents to consider other kinds of technology related to know-how, or how to configure a specific process or organisation.

If a broader definition of technology is accepted, it becomes clear that there is a close relationship between technology and various forms of knowledge and also between technology and learning.

 

ENOS, J. 1991.  The creation of technological capability in developing countries. New York: Pinter.

MEYER-STAMER, J. & DEUTSCHES INSTITUT FÜR ENTWICKLUNGSPOLITIK. 1997.  Technology, competitiveness and radical policy change : the case of Brazil. London ; Portland, OR: Frank Cass.

 

New series: the role of the service sector in economic development

It is time for me to venture into one of my other favourite topics: the service sector and its role in economic development. With this I am not shifting into promoting  like DVD rentals (don’t worry), I am mainly interested in the knowledge intensive business sector (a.k.a KIBS) and how it enables economic growth and productivity enhancement [1].

Let me start my story.

From an economics perspective, the service sector did not receive much attention from the classical theorists, and it only really came to the fore in the twentieth century. If you are interested to know more about the history, then I can post something on this later.

The service sector is becoming increasingly important in the economies of developed and developing countries. This is not unique to South Africa. While some countries have recognised the importance of strategies to further stimulate the productivity and growth of the service sector, other countries have not yet recognised that the service sector is constrained by a variety of challenges that are unique to this sector. In fact, many countries hope that services will go away. This sector is already a large contributor to jobs and Gross Domestic Product worldwide (not only in OECD countries).

Services are different from goods and require different strategies for development than the primary and secondary sectors which have been traditionally given attention. Although not everybody agrees on how to classify services, it is generally agreed that services are becoming very important in economic development. In some cases manufacturing will not become more productive without more specialised services.

A challenge we face as development practitioners is that data on the service sector in developing countries is unreliable, if it exists at all. For instance, in many countries the engineering services offered by a small engineering firm are recorded under the clients industry in the national accounts. Thus engineering services used by a mine are recorded as mining financial data (thus inflating the primary sector and deflating the tertiary sector in the national accounts). The implication is that the role of the service sector could be much bigger than the formal statistics suggest.

For the manufacturing sector, the service sector, especially knowledge-intensive and business services, is being increasingly recognised as important levers for growth and development of the economy. Knowledge intensive service providers are not only carriers of specialised knowledge; they are also connectors, technology transfer agents and problem solvers.

In many cases developing countries undermine the development of knowledge intensive business services through poorly designed public sponsored business services. Often these services are too generic to really stimulate the growth or increased productivity of the manufacturing sector.

The service sector is also more prone to market failures for many reasons. One of the reasons why poorly developed public services harm the development of knowledge intensive business services is that it is very difficult to compare and value different service offerings (not only between private providers, but also between public and private providers).

Developing countries face the additional challenge that the producer service sector tends to favour countries with higher skill levels or human capital, and shuns countries with large pools of unskilled labour. Due to the close relationship between the service sector and the manufacturing sector, low sophistication of the service sector will also restrain the growth and development of the manufacturing sector. Services often accompany goods in global trade, and service firms are affected by this wherever they are. Thus both the service sector and the manufacturing sector must be upgraded at the same time to overcome the low equilibrium that exists.

The next few posts will delve a little deeper into the service sector

[1] For those that don’t know, my PhD thesis was about market failures in knowledge intensive business services.

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