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Innovating out of a recession

By Leon Gettler - posted Tuesday, 14 July 2009

For any manufacturer, innovation is the mantra. Why then are so few doing it? Why is more spoken about than implemented? And does the downturn present new opportunities for innovation?

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics is a stark reminder of the problem. In 2006-07, less than a third (32.4 per cent) of Australian businesses reported implementing an innovation. Generally, innovation was more likely to happen in larger businesses. Significantly, the manufacturing sector had some of the highest proportions of innovative practices.

Still, the types of innovation undertaken also fell short of the mantra. Only 17 per cent of innovating firms reported expenditure on design, planning and testing activities and only 15 per cent of innovating businesses reported any R&D expenditure. Most of the innovation expenditure (47.8 per cent) was on buying machinery, equipment or technology.


Why does this happen? A London Business School study done nine years ago found most businesses were erratic and irregular innovators. The author, economics professor Paul Geroski, showed that the path of innovation was more a random walk than linear. Commercially successful breakthroughs and patents tended to be arbitrary, with a firm typically innovating every once in a while, and long periods between successful developments. The result: unpredictable growth spurts. Geroski found that innovation was erratic because companies hate cannibalising previous investments, innovations and brand management.

This suggests there are two big reasons why managers don’t innovate. The first is that most managers do not see themselves as inventors. Nor are they trained to be. Their job is simply to deliver more of the same, but more efficiently.

This in contrast to innovative giants like Nokia that are constantly overhauling their processes. For Nokia, the status quo is complacency. Many companies only recognise that too late. Addressing the Nokia annual general meeting in Helsinki in May 2008, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, expressed it thus: “Some have asked why Nokia reorganized when our business has been going so well. In other words, ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ More often, companies reorganize only when they are forced to, long after a shift in the marketplace has made their business model obsolete.”

Second, managers see themselves as pragmatic, hands-on deliverers of services, not as dreamers and innovators. And finally many executives doubt that bold innovative breakthroughs happen that often, or are even possible.

But with the global recession, the need for innovation is even greater today. A downturn gives companies even more impetus to understand customer needs and drivers. And while R&D budgets are being slashed, innovation can play a key role in cost management by focusing on operational efficiencies. In a recession, management innovation becomes critical.

Examples would include companies like Google which has been developing a management system that values adaptability of its employees.


Or Toyota which had a management system that enrolled employees in problem solving exercises in the pursuit of efficiency and quality. Although Toyota has been the world’s most profitable car company by a long shot, it recently reported the biggest annual loss in its history at $US6.9 billion ($A8.5 billion). But its new president Akio Toyoda, a grandson of the founder, says the company will innovate to recover. In a recent interview with Fortune, Toyoda said there was a need to reorganise and reinforce dedication to one of the pillars of Toyota’s production system: genchi genbutsu, or “go see for yourself” where employees have to check out the situation to come up with a solution.

“We may have to slightly change some of the ways of doing business, depending on the changes of the market,” Toyoda said. “Some of the good things we did, and also not-so-good things we did, may not completely fit the situation. So while preserving our good DNA, I would like to have the courage to change some things if those things have to be changed. Our philosophy of ‘Customer first’ has to be stronger.”

It’s an approach that takes enormous courage because it means undoing previous investments and systems.

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About the Author

Leon Gettler is a senior business journalist, writing for The Age, BRW, CFO and AFR Boss magazine. He is also the finance writer for the green lifestyle focused G Magazine. He writes on mining for Australian Resources and Investment, human resources issues for HR Monthly and is the management writer for CRN which focuses on computer resellers and the IT market. Leon also does the weekly Talking Shop podcast for Sensis.

Leon manages three blogs. One,, is focused mostly on the American business market and has a strong following in the US. His second blog, Management Line is for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald and his third blog is Business of Green is published by G Magazine.

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