Innov-a-ting [vrb] An action word…?


By Alan Mumby, Innovation Management lecturer at MADE Cymru

21st April 2021 is “World Creativity and Innovation Day” as promoted by the United Nations and endorsed and recognised by governments and peoples across the world. A great encouragement and motivation to us all.

New institutions and organisations…?

It can be argued that innovation is pretty much a hot topic with observers, specialists and alike all engaged in meaningful discussions around the veracity of the UK Government’s innovation strategies. Even closer to home, a proposal to radically enhance the country’s innovation capabilities by advocating the creation of an independent National Innovation Body for Wales and the establishment of the Bevan School of Government with a remit to provide the country with a new generation of public servants who would have the ability to focus on real-world industrial and societal problems.

Alongside these new institutions would come the Innovation Collaboration Zones and a clarion call – ‘Wales Challenges’ – making Wales the ‘go to’ place for mission-driven thinking. The proposal is well structured and is likely to be seen as having a great deal of merit. As an observer it will be interesting to see whether any or all of these proposals, tempered, abridged or otherwise come into being. For me the advantage of a proposal like this, is that it keeps innovation to the fore and that has to be seen as a positive for our businesses here in Wales.

Being part of University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD), a university that culturally and organisationally embraces and supports innovation, maybe it’s timely to consider what is innovation? And what influences does, or can it have on companies and organisations across Wales?

Innovation as an activity has traditionally been associated with the leading manufacturing industries and their development of high tech and high spec products – and we tend to look to our enterprising and entrepreneurial heroes such as Apple, Alphabet, Dyson, Airbus, Philips – (and all those we consider to be on the leading edge of innovation), to provide us with the best examples of radical and disruptive innovation – and that generally, is what they deliver. It’s the kind of highly visible innovation types that companies and organisations in Wales can recognise and aspire to emulate.

One thing that is becoming self-evident is that there’s a thirst for knowledge and a desire by companies in Wales to have a better appreciation of innovation and how, more importantly, it can apply to them. They want to know how they manage innovation, whether or not their innovation projects are internally derived and delivered, or whether they’re joint projects with external collaborators filling in the gaps of knowledge or skills they may have in areas such as scientific research, product design, specialist engineering knowledge or marketing know-how. For me the most encouraging development is that the companies wanting to know more about innovation management and for that matter new product and service development, are not necessarily your radical high tech high spec types. They are just seriously enterprising Welsh companies who want to be better at doing what they do by being more creative…. more innovative.

One Thing in Common

In the summer of 2019, the MADE Cymru Programme came into being, with one of the offers being the choice of two innovation courses. These courses had originally been intended and primarily focused on the Welsh manufacturing sector and therefore on to these courses (as expected) came engineers from Welsh manufacturing companies, this was pleasing. But we also saw that there was an opportunity for other professionals (not just the engineers) to come on to the programme as the topic of innovation management is recognised by most (or should be) as an ‘across the company’ activity and doesn’t reside in just one part of the company, or worse still, behind a door marked ‘Innovation Department’.

So, the students presently on the innovation courses have come from across Wales – and from very diverse professions; engineers, chemists, a law graduate, textile designers, a sawmill manager, surface designer, design engineers, marketing managers and a micro-palaeontologist, to mention just a few. The companies they come from are just as diverse; a manufacturer of scientific instruments for thermal desorption, a traditional woollen mill, producers of specialised working at heights access equipment, a branding and graphics consultancy, a stratigraphic consultancy, a timber processing company, and an aviation consultancy.

Watching these students working on ‘team based’ academic assignments, has been truly fascinating. It’s a rare privilege to observe a stratigrapher, textile designer and an industrial chemist (as part time MSc students) presenting a review of an innovative business model currently used by an American producer of outdoor clothing. Or to listen-in to a discussion between a flag maker and a production planner on the use of an innovation audit, followed by a discussion on the merits of developing a design brief!

I think this is my point.

In December 2019 there were an estimated 267,000 enterprises across our country, the highest estimate since 2003, employing around 1.2 million people, the majority being SMEs. I’d suggest that for the majority of Welsh businesses, the reason for establishing their business was to produce a product or provide a service. Their intention was not necessarily to be an ‘innovative’ company, being successful would “ fine thank you very much!” Having success as the goal is absolutely spot on, it can’t actually be faulted.

So why now the interest in innovation and how to manage it? Our businesses in Wales reflect us as people, as a society. When we hear about something ‘new’ that’s being offered we’re curious. When something that can enhance or make what we’re doing more sustainable, possibly securing our growth, our success, or just survival – we want to know more – and therefore we’re happy to have a learning experience.

All of these students want to know what innovation is – and how contextually it can bring dividends to how they carry out the business in their own workplaces.

Just asking something as simple as defining what is innovation? brings forward a plethora of interpretations and definitions, try ‘Googling it’, the numbers get a bit scary. But the point is none of the definitions are likely to be wrong, this is because it really does depend on who’s making the definition and who’s reading it. It’s likely to be considered and interpreted differently depending on whether you’re a rocket scientist at SpaceX or the production planner at a 1st tier injection moulding company in the Wrexham, it just needs to be in context.

I believe the word innovation has to some extent been highjacked and in some cases has been used merely as a slogan – a catchphrase, almost a jingle that’s associated with many a marketing PR and sales campaign, quite often without the presence of any real innovation.

The students studying and applying innovation will be the people who will take ‘Innovation’ – a noun, and mutate it to an verb – ‘innovative’, as in – ‘ be innovative – a physical action or a state of being.’

When explaining what a verb was, my english teacher at Ysgol Dinas Brân said “…it’s always a doing word Alan…….”.

MADE Cymru offer two flexible and online course options (both certified by University of Wales Trinity Saint David):

MADE Cymru is a suite of programmes designed to navigate organisations through Industry 4.0 via collaborative research & development and upskilling. Part/Fully Funded by the European Social Fund/European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government.