INSIDE BUSINESS: Fresh insight on new ideas

Firms cannot just assume they will win the innovation lottery. They must work at it

INNOVATION has become like motherhood in business. There is overwhelming evidence that it is a key factor in success. But there is still some mystery about how it can be achieved.

Demystifying the process is a fundamental aim of the programme Managing for Success, run by the South London Training and Enterprise Council (Solotec). The initiative, which is aimed at manufacturing and technology-based companies in Bexley, Bromley, Croydon and Sutton, begins with an innovation workshop at Solotec's headquarters in Bromley on 1 November. The idea is to build on the achievements of companies in the area generate new ideas for small and medium-sized businesses. The Oxford consultancy Thames Valley Technology will play an important part in helping companies identify opportunities and develop action plans.

It is a microcosm of the sort of thing Coopers & Lybrand, the accountants and management consultants, and Henley Management College are trying to encourage with their initiative to persuade businesses to take innovation seriously.

A study carried out by Opinion Research Business on behalf of the two organisations discovered that four in five of Britain's leading companies agree that innovation is essential if companies expect to compete, but only two in five believe that British companies are innovative. Fully 81 per cent believe that British businesses do not reward innovation. To help turn this situation around, Coopers has decided to fund, initially for five years, a chair of innovation at Henley. It will be occupied by Mark Brown, a consultant and academic who specialises in creativity and innovation and will lead the Innovation Research Centre. This will have the objective of researching and disseminating knowledge of best practice.

The programme, launched last week, has been at least partly prompted by the realisation that the low innovation ranking accorded British companies is largely because of the emphasis placed on incremental improvements rather than quantum leaps. Frank Milton, the Coopers partner who is leading the innovation initiative, points to the Japanese car maker that wanted to improve the time spent dealing with door panels during vehicle assembly. Whereas it currently spent twelve hours on the job, the Germans spent four. But rather than seeking to beat that by a narrow margin, the Japanese set a target of twelve minutes as part of a revolutionary plan for speeding up the delivery of cars. They met the target.

Such an approach is indicative of what Mr Milton, a marketing specialist, calls Total Innovation Management. The three-letter acronym and the inclusion of the word total are somewhat predictable, but the idea behind them appears sound enough: for innovation to work and help a company to succeed it must be fully integrated into the company's strategy.

"It's time we all started to take innovation seriously. Companies cannot just assume they are going to win the innovation lottery and hit the jackpot. They have to work at it," said Mr Milton. Those aiming to attend the Solotec event should take note.

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