Sustaining self-generated innovation in SA

August 30, 2013 • Opinion, Southern Africa

Paul Steenkamp, Innovation Manager at FNB. (Image source: FNB)

Paul Steenkamp, Innovation Manager at FNB. (Image source: FNB)

Organisational culture is one of the key drivers for stimulating self-generated innovation in South Africa as it promotes innovation internally that can then have an impact externally.

At FNB, for example, which focuses heavily on innovation as a differentiator in a competitive industry and environment, the following attributes help drive innovation internally: providing employees with the space to contribute, issuing challenges that require solutions, encouraging and rewarding innovative idea, being flexible, and empowering people though a high degree of autonomy.

Importantly, there needs to be tolerance for failed innovations as this is part of the learning process for successful ones.

Leadership need to provide a clear idea of how innovation can help the firm compete.  There is great benefit in categorising specific company objectives and clarifying how innovation can be employed to support the achievement of these goals.  Employee participation is likely to increase when the programme is linked to the company’s current concerns and priorities.

Drawing on this argument, it is imperative for the company’s leadership to have a shared vision of how the company will develop through innovation. The actions of management must include proactively seeking, acknowledging, reinforcing, supporting and rewarding innovative ideas, and the implementation of these in ways that generate real business benefit.

Processes and widespread employee involvement are vital 

When it comes to processes, it is important for an organisation’s leadership to make sufficient budget available for innovation.  Processes should be put in place to review new technological or market developments and what they mean for the organisation’s strategy. Processes should also be put in place to help manage new product development effectively from idea to launch.

Involving all employees is also vital. The business rationale for designing and running an innovation programme is typically to foster innovation and increase the extraction of innovative ideas from all employees.  The more people involved in improvements to products, services and processes, the better it is for innovation within a firm.

Reward and recognition systems that support innovation should also be considered – such as linking successful innovations to line and senior management’s compensation, using a blend of monetary and non-monetary reward and recognitions tools and techniques, and encouraging innovation via teamwork by rewarding innovation via teamwork. However, acknowledging a successful innovation via a public forum can in many instances be more highly valued than monetary reward.

The importance of teamwork

Encouraging a strong sense of team work within the company will encourage and increase participation in the innovation programme.  This is because teams are more likely to share ideas and work together in order to achieve a common goal which is reflective of one or more of the team’s ideas.

Also of importance is the need for a prioritisation framework. Given that innovation is also subject to limited resources, and should be undertaken in line with an organisation’s strategic intent, it is important for an organisation to have a clear system in place for choosing innovation projects.

There should be sufficient flexibility in the system for product development to allow small ‘fast track’ projects to happen.  Working closely with customers in exploring and developing new concepts is highly likely to result in competitive advantage. Collaboration with other firms to develop new products or processes can also be considered

Commitment to training and development

The provision of innovation related and innovation supportive training, including coaching and/or mentoring, is crucial.  For innovation to thrive, a strong commitment to training and development of people should be present within the organisation.

Taking time to improve performance, this notion should be extended to innovation systems, processes and projects within an organisation.

Knowledge management related to innovation is also a factor. Capturing of what has been learned, so that others in the organisation can make use of it, must occur. This should become a core competency that is actively applied in the innovation space within the organisation.

Making South Africa a more innovative society

Business needs to more effectively communicate its need for creative problem-solving skills to the local and national education system.  The education system then needs to deliver on this need.   Entrepreneurship and innovation are opposite sides of the same coins.  Both innovators and entrepreneurs act upon intuition in order to solve a problem, resolve a tension, or capitalise on an opportunity.  As such, legislation related to SMEs must reduce red tape associated with being in business, and include incentives such as tax concessions and funding for training programmes.

We in South Africa need to transpose the lessons learned from Silicon Valley in California. Hands-on mentorship and investment by innovators and entrepreneurs who have successfully ‘been there and done that’ is absolutely vital if we are to protect and nurture innovation within our society.

South African companies need to focus on delivering lots and lots and lots of innovations consistently over time, generating incremental improvements. These are a great source of sustainable competitive advantage, as they are difficult for competitors to copy.  They also help improve the basics, providing an ever-increasing solid platform upon which more radical innovations can be delivered.

Paul Steenkamp, Innovation Manager at FNB


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