David Probert, head of the Centre for Technology Management at the Institute for Manufacturing, says failing to innovate can condemn companies to the slow lane.
We all know that scientific and technological innovation is important. It’s what gives us things like life-saving medicines, safer cars and environmentally friendly products.
Equally, innovation is vital if companies are to succeed in today’s highly competitive global marketplace. If you are not innovating, you can be sure that someone else is – and at speed.
And if manufacturing and technology companies are to create and sustain thousands of meaningful and well-rewarded jobs, they need to be able to convert R&D into successful products, processes and services.
This summer the Institute for Manufacturing’s Centre for Technology Management (CTM) was delighted to host the R&D Management Conference on behalf of the R&D Management Association (RADMA). It was the biggest such conference to date, and its theme was From Science to Society: Innovation and Value Creation.
The scale of the conference perhaps reflected a growing preoccupation with the importance of innovation – and its challenges.
At the conference we heard from researchers from more than 35 countries but also from people who are at the sharp end of R&D. These included keynote speakers, Warren East, CEO of Rolls-Royce, and Joe de Sousa, the UK/US Product Development Science & Technology Lead for AstraZeneca.
We also ran a number of workshops and panels at which industrialists posed their innovation challenges to the research community. This included a panel hosted by CTM’s Strategic Innovation and Technology Management (STIM) Consortium, a non-competitive group of companies who collaborate with our researchers, share their experiences and help to steer practical research projects.
An important topic for the industrialists is how to create the conditions in which innovation can flourish, bearing in mind that the nature of R&D means that much of what you do may never come to fruition.
It is not unheard of for people to spend 25 years without ever bringing a product to market. In such circumstances, companies must find ways to keep innovators motivated and to make them feel valued.
Both Warren East and Joe de Sousa talked about putting in place innovation strategies or frameworks which provide a sense of purpose and direction, but which also give the R&D teams the space they need to innovate.
Looking beyond your own organisational boundaries is also important for bringing in fresh thinking, whether that’s working with universities or other businesses, large and small.
AstraZeneca, for example, runs an Open Innovation portal on which it describes some of the challenges it is facing and invites other companies to help it find solutions. This has led to fruitful partnerships with organisations which would never otherwise have been on its radar.
Building the customer perspective into the innovation process is also important if companies are to make good decisions about which early-stage technologies to invest in.
Big companies often admire the agility of their smaller counterparts and the advantages it can bring in getting products to market more quickly.
Many of the larger players are experimenting with a more agile approach, but this can be difficult when R&D is managed through highly controlled stage gate processes, and distinct organisational cultures have developed around those structures.
How do you create an environment in which you can learn from the agility of small companies without compromising your existing operations?
At the Centre for Technology Management at the IfM (itself part of the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Department) we are ideally placed to address these R&D puzzles.
We bring together an understanding of the diverse ingredients needed for successful technological innovation: science, engineering and business management.
The issues these are facing are common across many industries and reflect the kinds of problems we work on, for example:
- How do you make sure that your R&D is doing what the business needs it to do?
- How do you maintain a healthy innovation pipeline?
- How do you get better at backing the right technologies?
- How do you form successful relationships with other organisations such as universities and start-ups?
- And how do you make the right strategic decisions about your IP?
Our research aims to deliver practical solutions through the development of a portfolio of flexible innovation and technology management approaches and techniques to address these issues.
We run a series of workshops and open courses at the IfM at which we share our methods based on many years of research and working closely with a wide range of industrial partners.
You can find more information about our autumn courses here:
And there is more about the STIM Consortium here:
We can also provide consultancy to help you apply our tools and techniques through IfM Education and Consultancy Services (IfM ECS) at: