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Friday, October 30, 2009

R&D And Innovation In A Downturn : A Misnomer?

I have always followed Booz Allen’s annual innovation study for the last several years and have written about it as well here, here etc.. This year’s study looks refreshing and asks the question how do smart companies spending good money &effort on innovation approach spending when the economy is down? The answer: Most of the leading innovators are actually accelerating their innovation efforts in the recession – in doing so they are actually betting that customers will demand new products and services as the economy gets out of the downturn. Many of the corporate decision makers in the list who control/manage budgets for innovation – running into hundreds of billion dollars of business every year believe that innovation is critical as they prepare for the upturn, and a majority have maintained or expanded their portfolios and are pursuing new products to improve growth and margins. Practically everyone wants to be as focused and result oriented as could be The recent trends, observed over the last few years suggest that as a rule, companies are performing less pure and applied research. Instead, they are concentrating their R&D budgets on product development and engineering. The software sector is now brimming with new strength on SaaS & Cloud centric products and services while behemoths like SAP struggling to maintain growth and leadership! Apple had the best quarters when the global economy was perhaps at its lowest ebb last few quarters!
I found it interesting to see an IBM executive’s statement suggesting that in a recession or downturn "...that really drives a need for innovation and a level of creativity that you might no otherwise have in normal times." I thought that the new normal is that normalcy is a product of bygone era! The reality is that last two decades have seen more changes in growth /slowdown and indications are that this may become the new normal – so downturn or upswing ought to marginally influence yearly spend on innovation – particularly when product development cycles can run into multiple years. If anything the sensitivity could prove itself in reverse direction of spending more/differently in a downturn, Read Applied material’s dilemma – the revenues are down significantly this year. Yet it’s customers continue to demand innovative new products to maintain their own competitive positions. The stronger companies want to stay on the same innovation page so that at the end of the cycle, they have a stronger competitive position. Taking a long view of economy, markets and relating to the context are done differently by different companies. The top three spenders on R&D in the world happen to be non-american companies! Matter of fact in many industries today, predicting the economy for the next few years and its implication for them may become the most coveted job and an art for its executive board. In fact, I would think that not being able to predict and adjust to an ever changing economic environment may become a disadvantage for any enterprise – being able to constantly test the assumptions about economic environment may have to become a top item for corporate strategy planning, adjusting internally and to succeed in the marketplace.

Lets look at how this would impact executives inside the organization. Business needs to look at talent horizontally across the business classified as per the roles and not necessarily as per the organizational norms and this would be the key in effectively harnessing talent inside enterprises. The differences ought to be expressed in terms of talent valuation - that is, such attributes as knowledge, experience, skills, and personal interaction capabilities - and not in terms of organizational structures (such as business units) or in human resources management terms (such as age, education, seniority, or compensation). In an age where the rules and procedures of an organization can be an obstacle to segmentation and a force for “averaging” the treatment of individuals’ roles, and in a situation where organizations need to offer very specialized services, definitely a radical new look at the way talent gets categorized, nurtured and reviewed are called for and on an ongoing basis, needs to be reviewed to provide a definitively fresh and dynamic approach. After all winning the people war is a crucial determinant of success for any organization. In most of the knowledge business, the future values of enterprises are centered on building seemingly intangible assets vs the conventional measures of capital assets. That’s where good, capable people, well aligned team, well conceived strategy and top quality leadership matters. With all these in place, the cutting edge would from innovation - in all its forms starting from management innovation to disruptive innovation to innovation of the incremental kind. The ability to recruit/ mould the leaders that will be able to create the future innovations that will make enterprise more successful is a major responsibility & talent management in many ways will determine the organization’s growth as much as the overall business strategies will. This will shape organizations in a significant way and if organizations get this right along with purposeful innovation models, competitiveness increases and success would follow.

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