-Forward Thinking Leaders -

The SA Leader Magazine

Digital September 2015 Cover

In the September issue

How to recruit through Social Media

Uber yourself before you get Kodaked

POPI and Medical Practices

Leading and staying focus


Marketing Articles

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Innovation the key to continued business success

Volatile business landscapes, unpredictable markets, complexity and competition are just some of the drivers that keep business leaders searching for innovative ways of doing business. 


However, says Awie Vlok, lecturer in innovation management at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), according to the 2014-15 Global Competitiveness Report, endorsed by the World Economic Forum, South Africa's ranking has dropped three places, from 53 to 56, and innovation four places, from 39 to 43 out of 144 countries.


“While our capacity for innovation has improved from 4.1 to 4.3 on a seven-point scale, our companies’ spending on research and development has dropped from 3.5 to 3.4. For 96% of our executives, innovation is increasingly becoming a global game, in which merging and combining talents, ideas, insights and resources across the world is the only way to be successfully innovative.


“These ratings show that 91% of South African business executives see innovation as a strategic priority for their businesses and 81% would use innovation to improve their existing products and services. A stronger entrepreneurial culture in education systems (58%) and better alignment of student curricula with the needs of business (56%) are needed in the South African context. Collaborative innovation is a priority for 94% of South African executives, while 93% believe SMEs and individuals can be as innovative as large companies."


Prof Jamie Anderson, a strategic management expert from Belgium who recently spoke at the USB, distinguishes between innovation and creativity. He describes creativity as the ability to develop new ideas and to discover new ways of looking at problems and opportunities, and innovation as the ability to apply creative solutions to problems and opportunities.


Prof Anderson says there should be greater focus on fostering individual and collective creativity. “Leaders individually must get in touch with their own creative thinking skills in order to make sense of and deal with complexity. Rather than to develop skills for the ‘management of creativity’ (a control mind-set), organisations must develop creative leaders – people who promote and acknowledge creative thinking as an important everyday practice.”


Vlok, who is currently working on his PhD in innovation at USB, says thinking about thinking is vital for innovation. "We differ in terms of our functional orientations – our financial managers think like financial managers, our engineers think like engineers. Innovation starts when our particular mould is no longer adequate for a given situation and we realise that a new perspective is needed. The innovation orientations of people also play a role. Some like to come up with ideas while others would rather build on someone else's ideas; some like risk-taking while others would rather avoid risk, some like to initiate innovation while others would rather follow someone else's process."


Vlok believes innovation is now needed more than ever for sustainable business.


"Most managers today experience innovation drivers. These include the speed and magnitude of a changing business landscape, lower entry barriers allowing more competition, the availability of more offerings giving customers greater choice, customers becoming increasingly sophisticated and demanding, growing competition for scarce, value-creating resources, climate change, growing populations, socio-economic challenges and geo-economic power shifts."


According to Vlok, surveys have found that managers know they need to become much more serious about innovation. However, over 50% of them are not sure what they should do differently to increase their innovation performance.


"The innovation economy is introducing a new game. The rules of the game are changing and the players require new skills to feature in the new game. Innovation benchmarking reports suggest that our region has much to celebrate but we need to improve our innovation through education, a stronger science base and collaboration."


However, there is one major barrier hampering innovation. "Ego is the biggest killer of innovation and sometimes the ‘innovation ego-system’ disempowers the ‘innovation ecosystem’.


"In the knowledge economy it is important to know your strengths but also to always be open to new input. This becomes much easier when leaders accept that they do not have all the answers. We can learn so much from each other and from countries like Finland and Singapore which have results to show and practices to support their intent. We can also establish learning platforms for leaders, expose them to new methods and thinking, solicit greater scholarly involvement in innovation value chains and deliberately bring science and business graduates together."


Innovation is a multi-disciplinary field, and Vlok is of the opinion that academic exposure to different perspectives presented at business school level would help business professionals relate to other disciplines and understand important relations that work together to achieve innovation.


"The pace of new developments and the complexity of issues require continuous learning, which is one of the fundamental truths about innovation. More business schools and executive education providers are offering new learning opportunities on strategic innovation, foresight-driven innovation, design thinking in innovation, social innovation and technology road mapping. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in scholarly innovation publications.


"USB has taken a portfolio perspective to cater for different audiences. The MBA focuses on multi-disciplinary and conceptual integration and critical thinking at strategic or policy level. USB's new postgraduate diploma in business management and administration includes a full module on innovation which covers theory and practical tools for real-world settings. Actionable learning insights include awareness of where to focus innovation, who to engage and how to craft processes for innovation results."

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