Time to be innovative: Even the quo has lost its status!

Thursday, 5 May 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Another May Day has passed and it is quite predictable what we may be doing on these days!

We see the media carrying the most popular picture for the day across their front pages – lifting of heavy vegetable sacks by a man in the Pettah market or a woman crushing stones in a quarry.

The pictures support the caption stating that it is their day or ‘do they know that this is their day?’ Only one day out of the 365 and that too they may be needed to be reminded of.

However, the particular method of doing their tasks to earn a living has been with them all these days and years. The way we do things has not changed in many places. Think again. The Haymarket place in Chicago is unrecognisable from the day that gave rise to this annual celebration and perhaps the country where it was born is not viewing the event in the same way.

It is important that we as a society make a marked impact on all personnel, the way they go about doing their work and on their overall quality of life if we are to claim that we are change agents and developed societies.

I am no economist but I would venture out and say that making a decent disposable income available to every worker is what one should aim for. How you set about spending or utilising the disposable income may indicate your internal qualities and the value system.

Time for change

Why should one be eternally relegated to the task of lifting heavy objects like this and women spend a good part of their life crushing stones on quarry sites? There are many such examples when one looks around.

The answer is that we have not changed our ways of doing things. The times have stood still for many years and so are the people who should have been leading change. The organisations can stagnate when led by those who have no appetite for innovation.

Here too examples abound when we look around. Not many venture forth with ideas as change is not viewed positively and the status quo remains. It is literally a miracle that some systems still function. That perhaps is a testimony to man’s ability to survive against remarkable odds at times.

Today we have an opportunity and a responsibility. This day we must make a conscious effort to understand the opportunities that lay within us if we are to innovate and embrace change at all levels. Not easy, as Plato a long time ago remarked, what is honoured in a country will be cultivated there.

We must not establish halls of fame for just passing examinations but for those who really go beyond the ordinary. In an examination it is obvious that someone somewhere has to come on top. Maximum or very high marks may be impressive, but that should not be a reason to get a placement in a hall of fame.

However, we must have our own set of heroes. We must move society to a higher level of performance and expectation. Keep lowering the bar and one only lowers society’s ability to be creative and innovative.

It is quite important in education and schools that one sets the stage to realise these objectives. Today one may witness posters outside schools for O/L and A/L performances which actually creates a wrong type of performance appraisal and one can reminisce on what Plato stated.

Culture for innovation

While cultivating a culture for innovation, one must understand the role of time and individual or collective effort. No great thing is created suddenly – so it is with everything. One must allow time and latitude for creativity to flourish and thrive.

Today in organisations, quality time for some to engage in their work meaningfully is not present. You may appear to be busy bees, but underneath you actually may not be going anywhere.

It is interesting to contemplate the recorded conversation between Soichiro Honda – the man known for Honda – and Takeo Fujisawa, CEO of Honda, at the beginning. When establishing the partnership, Honda had told Takeo: “I am an engineer, so I will never listen to your advice in the field of production,” to which Fujisawa had replied: “I am a businessman, but I do not guarantee an immediate profit. I want you to look far into the future.” Takeo’s answer is quite revealing and worth comparing with what one may hear today.

Our corporations appear to have taken the lessons from the short-termism of Western or European institutions. The Japanese take a more long-term view and perhaps is a manifestation of the Asian philosophy. It appears that at times a corporation’s short term dashes for prosperity may actually ruin human resources – haste makes waste!

Giving some time for employees to grow is a concept that is now being followed as real examples have come out showing the potential. For example, corporations such as Google and 3M – even the Western short-termism we appear to have interpreted in only one way the bottom line fixation – which are renowned for innovation allow their employees 20% of the time to engage in whatever they like.

The returns from such gestures towards employees have paid rich dividends. We must not overemphasise management – we today need more leadership pushing for innovation across the Sri Lankan organisational landscape.

Research and development

In an organisational context, creativity means research and development. Research and development enables growth and all leading organisations do accommodate strong R&D budgets.

To enable investments in R&D as we have a poor track record, the State budget allowed investments in this regard to be given tax benefits. However with many months after the Budget proposals coming into force, we do not witness organisations taking any positive steps in this direction.

For many with BOI status this pathway appears to be of no use anyway. The same Budget gave duty concessions for vehicle imports and the results are quite visible and impressive. How corporate minds digest information and pursue results is interesting to observe. Note that Sri Lanka spends only 0.11% of GDP on research and development and the share of the private sector to this figure is extremely low.

Nurturing team creativity

Organisations both public and private must nurture team creativity. At present we may have some well performing teams ensuring that the containers with their load leave religiously on time, with arrival at the docks guaranteed. What we must now seek out are creative teams that take the organisations to the next level.

We should not be too happy with the status quo and the incremental growth opportunities possible with a well-oiled team. Within the public sector nurturing creative teams may be more challenging, but we must do it.

The State after all is responsible for the whole economy rather than a private entity whose boundaries are much narrower and internally focused. It has been recently said that 50% of the public expenditure is not properly utilised and this is significant. Innovation here may mean that one need not be sent from pillar to post but direct to results – operational innovation.

Innovation is not necessary to be a brand new product or a process. A comedian once remarked that today’s conditions are such that even quo lacks status!

It takes genius and courage to originate – not imitate. When I switch on my TV and flip across local stations in the evening, imitations appear to fill the spectrum. Sadly this is also the time Sri Lanka’s maximum electricity demand takes place.

In a productive, developed economy you may observe the peak demand during day time but not here. Thus we have not just imitations but costly imitations. Soichiro Honda as a child ran after it when he saw his first automobile in all excitement and grew up to give world the Honda. Lack of engines for his first attempt meant that he started building them, and in new ways. That is mindset – the sort that is needed here on this day.

(Professor Ajith de Alwis is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk)

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