Searching for new ways

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We are a proud nation and for good reasons. But it seems to me that somehow this pride to be Ethiopian hinders us from learning, seeing things differently, accepting that there is another world out there and that things can be done differently. We have a hard time changing and trying out something new. And this is true in doing business as well. We continue to do things the way they have been done for years, often using old fashioned and outdated processes and materials. A quick look at the construction industry for example and the way buildings are erected here, shows that the techniques applied no longer compare to modern construction in other countries, saving on cement and concrete and using different materials and equipment. Although electronic banking is being introduced, banking procedures and modes of payment are still manual to a great extend, while the rest of the world has already moved on to more modern electronic and digital technologies. Could it be that pride and the strong tendency to hold on to the way things are done here, is becoming a hindrance for progress and change? Culture has indeed a strong influence on people. Just consider the scores of people who have gone abroad for further studies and have learnt to do things differently. But with the photograph in their graduation outfit sitting on their desk, they soon fall into old habits upon returning to their previous work environment, hardly able to make a difference as their colleagues continue to do things the way they are used to.
And yet, the world of business and work is changing rapidly around us and it will continue to do so in the years ahead. In order to survive and prosper in this dynamic setting, organizations, businesses and the people who work there must be willing and able to change as well. For businesses, this means continuous innovation: developing and implementing new ways of operating and creating new products to serve the needs of customers both in the domestic and export markets. For employees as well, this means relentless attention to planning and managing their careers under conditions very different from those of the past.
Innovation is one of the hallmarks of progressive organizations in today’s dynamic environments. The best businesses can innovate on an ongoing basis. The best managers can help people utilize their innovative talents to the fullest. Formally stated, innovation can be defined as the process of creating new ideas and putting them into practice. It is the means by which creative ideas find their way into everyday practice in the form of new goods or services that satisfy customers or as new systems or practices that help organizations produce them. Product innovation refers to innovation which results in the creation of new or improved goods or services, while process innovation results in a better way of doing things.
Today’s managers bear increasing responsibility for ensuring that both product and process innovation take place. In this regard they must be concerned with two main aspects of innovation as expressed in the following equation: Innovation = Invention + Application
Invention here is the act of discovery, while application is the act of use. Both are critical to the innovation process. New ideas for improved products and services emerge from invention but they achieve their full value only through application. In too many organizations, invention occurs but application doesn’t. In truly creative and innovative organizations, managers are able to create a climate within which people actively work to satisfy both.
Various steps are involved in a typical process of organizational innovation and they include:
Idea creation – new product or process ideas arise from spontaneous creativity, ingenuity and information processing.
Initial experimentation – new ideas are first examined in concept to establish their potential values and application.
Feasibility determination – formal studies are conducted to determine feasibility of adopting the new product or process, including costs and benefits.
Final application – the new product or service is produced and marketed, or the new process is fully implemented.
Central to this view of the innovation process is the idea that any new product or process idea must offer true benefits to the organization and/or marketplace. Furthermore, the process is not complete until the point of final application has been reached. A new idea, even a great one, is not alone sufficient. The new idea must pass through the various stages of innovation to reach final application before the ultimate benefits from innovation can be realised and later spin offs.
Looking at what is happening with the production of the new Airbus 380, its innovation process is far from complete and seems to be stuck in its final stage of application. The gigantic machine even came to Addis Abeba to have its performance tested at high altitude runways. The Airbus company is facing problems in its final stage of production and marketing, losing orders in the process and facing the loss of tens of thousands of jobs to compensate for financial problems.
In any case, the pressure to survive in today’s rapidly changing world is high and companies and their managers have no option but to be innovative and to be so continuously. Among the characteristics of highly innovative organizations are the following four features:
Organizational strategy and culture support the innovation process.
Organizational structures support the innovation process.
The organization is staffed to support the innovation process.
The organization’s top management supports the innovation process.
Although this list seems straightforward and simple, it is a true management challenge to make sure that all four points are fulfilled in actual practice. To be innovative on a continuous basis, an organization’s strategies and cultures must be built around a commitment to innovation. In a company where innovation is expected to take place and thus where taking risks is encouraged, the organizational climate must be one that tolerates mistakes or well-intentioned ideas that just don’t work out as expected.
In highly innovative companies, staffing is handled with a clear commitment to innovation. The organization’s strategies, cultures and structures support every employee and allow them to use their creative talents to the fullest. In addition, managers in highly innovative companies pay special attention to filling critical innovation roles. That is, they make sure that the following roles in particular are always filled with highly talented people:
Idea generators – people who are the creative source of new insights.
Information gatekeepers – people who are continuously scanning the environment for new knowledge.
Product champions – people who adopt new ideas and push for their implementation.
Project managers – people who organize and manage technical support for innovations.
Leaders – people who encourage and support others to keep up the quest for continuous innovation.
Finally, an innovative organization benefits from top-management support. Part of this responsibility involves setting a good personal example and maintaining a positive tone and giving people the feeling that it is okay to fail. In terms of management, that is innovative by itself. Remember, without making mistakes we will not learn.

Ton Haverkort
Source: “Managing Organizational Behavior” by Schermerhorn/Hunt/Osborn