Technology and innovation are closely linked. Technology without innovation – i.e. Vorschautechnology which cannot be successfully used on the market – will remain invention at best and stuck in a pre-market phase. The second part of the discussion on technology management (part 1) between Birgit Stelzer, a researcher at the Institute for Technology and Process Management at Ulm University, and Guido Beyß deals with what defines innovation, how innovation originates, which type of culture promotes innovation and what kind of vision a technology-driven company needs.
What is the essence of innovation?
Beyß: If companies market a new development, they do something similar to dropping a stone into water. The stone produces ripples in the water. These ripples become weaker and weaker as they move away from the point where the stone dropped. Just in the same way, the effects of innovation weaken as they cross over to other economic areas or sectors. If a company succeeds in combining and marketing developments which occurred in very different sectors, it has made a successful innovation.
So innovation is often about a combination of already existing things – no more and no less?Beyß: Exactly. The research on accelerated nerve regeneration conducted by Dr Christine Radtke of Hannover Medical School is a good example of how two completely unrelated facts can be combined. She found that the antibiotic and sticky silk produced by South American silk spiders can serve as an anchor for regrowing nerve tissue and will dissolve over time thanks to its natural origin. Taken by themselves, neither nerve regeneration nor spider silk (which has been in existence for about 400 million years) are new. It is the combination of these two completely unrelated concepts that results in a revolutionary approach. [Please see also article “Revolution and evolution – look back to look forward”]
Let’s continue to focus on innovation, i.e. renewal by marketable products and processes. What is, in your opinion, at the core of growth? How do companies gain competitive advantages? By intensive research and development? By processes and procedures? Or by closeness to the market?
Beyß: Companies often need to find a balance between revolution and evolution. Evolution – in the sense of developing existing technologies – is important to increase quality, quickness or price competitiveness. And technological revolutions are needed as well, as they may help to include influences from other areas and from outside the company. A good balance between evolution and revolution must be found. Simply developing existing products further will not be enough. Even if a company has ideal processes and procedures which ensure quicker, better or cheaper production, it will not be successful in five years’ time if it does not undergo and accept change. Relying only on revolutionary developments, on the other hand, may result in an exceptional product in the long run, but also in bankruptcy in five years’ time.
What type of corporate culture helps to promote innovation?
Beyß: Innovation and innovativeness benefit when employees have the freedom to live up to their potential. Innovation cannot be ordered from the top, it can only grow from below. It is therefore important to encourage people’s willingness to play around with new ideas and to take things seriously which appear crazy at first. And it is important to tolerate mistakes. All that has often been said before, but it needs to be emphasised time and again. 3M, certainly a good example of decades of successful innovation management, has a useful corporate motto: “Hire good people and let them do their job in their own ways. And tolerate mistakes.”Is technology leadership a relevant ideal for a technology-driven company?
Beyß: There is no general answer to this question. It will depend considerably on the individual company, its strategy and the markets on which it wants to be successful. The key point is that technological leadership is not a value in itself. It has to serve a certain purpose. And this purpose can only be to exploit the economic potential in a given market. One might therefore rather say that innovation leadership is a relevant ideal. This expression makes clear that it is not technology as such which is important, but the ability to successfully establish the new combinations described by Schumpeter on the market.
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