Investing for innovation must explore beyond the lab
By Lauren Timmer-Somer, Head of Marketing and Interconnectivity Solutions at Ricoh SA
Innovation requires a mental agility that enables people to think differently and think big. But beyond that it requires practical activities.
You have to get the employees to buy into it or accept it and even to be a part of the innovation itself. And that means the entire staff, from the CEO to the foundational employees. It’s pointless getting the CEO and the executive team to adopt the programme without the support of all the employees and vice versa.
Companies must have programmes to help employees accept innovation and their role in making it happen. It feeds a culture of innovation without which your organisation faces the threat of potentially catastrophic disruption that could quite literally appear overnight, from nowhere, even from a former employee, or a more agile competitor.
Innovative, disruptive systems and processes may not always appear to be sane. Henry Ford disrupted the world of production, albeit initially confined to the automotive industry. People thought he was nuts changing the way ordinary workers went about their business. He introduced production lines of specialists who focused on specific parts of assembling products. Prior to this general consensus assumed skilled workers would build products from beginning to end on their own. One highly knowledgeable person or a very small team of well trained mechanics would build an entire car, for example. To assume that a comparatively unskilled labourer, rapidly trained to perform a simple task, working in unison with equally perfunctorily trained labourers, could assemble sophisticated products and at the same time leverage economies of scale to save time and money was unthinkable. It was preposterous. Yet Henry Ford proved his many detractors wrong. The successful method to investing in innovation is therefore paved with facts, tested and verified, to substantiate claims before more widespread investments of time, resources and money, no matter the lunacy behind which they are initially cloaked.
You cannot fool yourself that your status as a big brand with marketing power will convince customers your traditional offering is really what they’re after. Customers are better and more rapidly informed than at any other time in history so there is intense demand for companies to shape up or ship out. Big brands failing to adapt to customer demands through a lack of innovation will also quickly find their war chests eroded, no matter how deep they were to begin with. Real innovation is the only way to effectively combat innovation.
You know that you have to listen to customers but now you must also combine forces with your customers. You cannot ignore your customers and you cannot treat them like fools. They have voices and they know what they want. Globalisation riding a digital wave has swept consumers to power so they now call the shots. Brands no longer tell customers the way it’s going to be. Customers make demands and their demands are either met or they (and all their friends) go elsewhere. Sometimes customers don’t explicitly know what they want but a disruptive competitor (like the Ubers and AirBnBs of the world) come along and show them a better way. With prescriptive processes and inflexible traditions companies are ill equipped to deal with these agile upstarts. However, by investing properly in empowering your workers, from the executives at the summit to the workers at the foundation, through innovative and flexible systems and processes, companies engender a progressive culture that outstrips the powers of disruption.
Only a stout traditionalist bent on suicide ignores the facts that result from investments in a culture of innovation. Many a lost traveller thought they knew better than their GPS. Take DHL, for example. Its Global Forwarding business faced many challenges from disruptive forces. But DHL countered these by gathering its experts, understanding customer requirements, and embracing technology to empower new processes and systems so that it appears to be reinventing itself. The third-generation Parcelcopter is a drone that delivers parcels in eight minutes compared to a traditional truck that took half an hour to deliver the same parcels. And DHL worked with Ricoh and Ubimax in Netherlands to put augmented reality software coupled to smart glasses in its warehouses to help people pick inventory. Its process is now 25% faster and there are fewer human errors as a result.
Logistics isn’t the first industry to come to mind when you think about the application of sexy tech but its when you work with companies like DHL and even Imperial Logistics in South Africa that you realise these companies are actually leading innovation based on disruptive forces we read about on a daily basis.
They demonstrate that innovation is possible even for large, traditionally cumbersome behemoths in unsexy industries because they embraced cultures of innovation and gleaned the subsequent agility that helped them make real what previous generations may have thought was absolutely crazy. I mean, who ever thought of a parcel delivery company flying model helicopters or using video game technology in their warehouses?