The disappearance of the huge car production factory at Longbridge is testimony to what happens when customers lose faith in your product.
Having learned the lesson that constant improvement and innovation is not optional if you want to keep your customers happy, Rover Cars made intense but ultimately futile efforts to survive.
As the late seminal guru Dr W Edwards Deming explained, customer satisfaction is not enough and it is essential to create delight. And a lack of delight among customers seems to be the fate of a global corporate giant.
South Korean company Samsung Electronics has recently reported a 60 per cent slump in its quarterly operating profits compared to the same period in 2013. Samsung’s decline in the smartphone market has been remarkably rapid. Having captured a large slice of the global market for smartphones in which Apple had become so dominant, it is now under attack from Chinese and Indian competitors able to make cheaper alternatives. Fascinatingly, Apple is defying the predictions of analysts who’d written its obituary and is fighting back by producing phones with larger screens to rival Samsung’s products.
Samsung is so desperate to maintain market share it is cutting prices. In all likelihood, this probably won’t be enough and Samsung will be subject to the turbulence and vortex of decline we’ve seen in Ericsson, HTC, Motorola, BlackBerry and Nokia. Samsung, it should be noted, is a company in which there is an intense culture of improvement and commitment to innovation. What does this suggest?
Formal theory on innovation does not offer certainty. Though it may be argued that imitators of what so called ‘first movers’ can avoid the risks and expense associated with being a pioneer. The trouble is markets move with incredible rapidity and imitation is often illusory and short-term. It also seems that ‘simple’ innovation is insufficient.
To be really successful it appears that a company must be willing to be radical and truly creative. It must also be able to get products to market faster than competitors. Being ‘good enough’ is not enough.
In every organisation there is a need to foster intellectual curiosity and encourage an attitude to dare to be different. The importance of creative thinking and willingness to deviate from textbook solutions cannot be over-emphasised. Universities, in particular, have a critical role in supporting innovation and the quest for solutions to existing problems that currently beset us as well as developing products and materials that may alter our lives and society in ways that may seem fantastic.
Research departments throughout the world are working on innovative materials. Indeed, the October 11 edition of New Scientist contained the article ‘Wonder Stuff’ considering seven materials ‘that will revolutionise your life’.
One, ‘memory glass’ will allow data to be recorded and stored for, almost, eternity. It is a material being developed by Southampton University and is virtually indestructible. It is stable up to 1000°C, can survive a nuclear bomb and will ‘persist for 10 billion years’.
Wood is a material older than humanity. Significantly wood is abundant and renewable. A research project at Cambridge University, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, is examining the molecular structure of types of wood using a nuclear magnetic resonance machine to develop variants that would be incredibly strong. Among the possible uses of such advanced wood would be high-rise ‘plyscraper’ buildings that would have a much reduced carbon ‘footprint’. Amazingly it is thought that wood could also be a cheap substitute for silicon currently used in electronics.
Among the other materials that are undergoing development in research institutions across the world is ‘shrilk’ which is incredibly strong and flexible but which because it is made of a combination of the organic polymer chitin (it is found in insect exoskeletons) and fibroin (the insoluble protein in spider silk), is biodegradable. Shrilk could replace plastic and potentially solve the increasingly fraught problem of rubbish disposal.
The other materials have equally fascinating and incredible properties. ’Stanene’ is a material that would allow current to flow without heat being produced and would potentially mean your mobile phone would stay charged for months.
‘Aerogels’ are solids that are lighter than air and among the range of applications would make hydrogen powered vehicles potentially feasible. Self-healing polymers would enable materials to act like our own skin and heal. This would allow cars to ‘repair their own scratches’ and ‘clothing that darns itself.’ Even more critically, structural materials such as used in aircrafts, ships and bridges would be ‘constantly refreshed’ and would therefore ‘never succumb to fatigue or corrosion’; frequently a causal factor in failure resulting in fatalities.
Finally, ‘skutterudites’ provide thermoelectric ability to generate electricity from temperature difference in almost all of our everyday appliances.
Materials technology innovation continues to develop in exciting ways. More locally, there are ways that companies can develop appreciation of the possibilities; especially from what is occurring in companies from a range of sectors and in other major European cities.
This week, Birmingham City University is hosting a Cross Innovation Final Conference and Blender Workshop.
Cross Innovation is a project supported by INTERREG IVC and the European Regional Development Fund and involved creative companies collaborating with those from other sectors.
This event involves presentations panel discussions on co-creation and key thinkers from cities across Europe including Berlin, Amsterdam and Rome and Birmingham in examining policy, technology, finance and design in stimulating innovation.
Even beyond the multitude of radical innovations under development in research institutions there are ‘eureka inventions’ resulting from chance by individuals and in companies.
However, the question that any manager involved in strategy needs to ask when thinking about whether they should invest in R&D is whether they can afford not to spend money on creating innovative capability. Failure to be innovative will increase your chances of ending up among the corporate ‘carcasses’ that did not react to change.
* Dr Steven McCabe is director of research degrees at Birmingham City University