New ideas are not enough for true innovation

Wits Business School master’s programme focuses on managing innovation to generate real returns.
The so-called Asian Tiger economies provide some of the best examples of countries that have succeeded in leveraging innovation to move from being impoverished to being industrially-advanced nations within a generation. Picture: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

Companies can’t simply invest money and resources in their efforts to come up with new ideas and expect this to lead to innovation that is worth the effort.

Dr Diran Soumonni, director of the Master of Management in Innovation Studies at Wits Business School (WBS), says new ideas are mainly an input into the process of innovation. “Thus, there is a difference between creativity – which is about developing new ideas – and innovation, which is the ability to capture value from those ideas.”

It is innovation that leads to the development and commercialisation of new technologies and what have become textbook examples of disruption such as the internet, social media, mobile banking and, of course, Uber.

And while you would be hard-pressed to find any reasonably successful company today that does not claim to be innovative, many do not recognise that the process of innovation should be managed for it to truly add value to their enterprises.

“Managing innovation is about ensuring that the ideas generated within a company get through the pipeline and are developed into something that justifies the effort and the investment allocated to this,” says Soumonni.

Through its Masters in Innovations Studies, WBS aims to give students the skills they need to manage innovation within their own companies or organisations. “We don’t teach people how to innovate. People are already innovating every day as they try to solve all kinds of problems. Instead, we give students management frameworks, concepts and models to understand innovation in a more systematic manner.”

Soumonni says that understanding these tools and analysing how other companies manage innovation means that students don’t have to learn to do it exclusively by trial and error within their own organisations.

The course touches on strategic management, organisational development, and related tools to manage the outcomes from innovation expenditure. Once students have been introduced to the broad approaches to innovation management, the course offers electives focusing on the application of these concepts within specific sectors, such as ICT, media, energy and the built environment, among others.

The value of a culture of innovation

Soumonni says organisational culture is also critical to innovation, and while innovative strategies may be developed at a high level, a culture of innovation should be present in all functions of the organisation.

“The research and development unit relies on the marketing department to understand what products and services customers want and need. At the same time, marketing may understand what people want, but without working with research and development they won’t know what is technologically feasible.”

While much of the course focuses on innovation at the company level, it also has a more policy-oriented component that includes a historical account of the role of science, technology and innovation in economic and social development. “Firms exist in a particular setting and we also look at questions about how the state can better stimulate and incentivise innovation,” says Soumonni.

He says that while investment in science and technology is necessary, it is not enough to foster the innovation that South Africa and other economies on the continent need to grow.

Ensuring that investments pay off

“The mere fact that you invest in science and technology does not mean it will result in the outcomes you desire. African countries often make these investments and still fall into recession or struggle to grow.

“The answer, in our view, is not to cut funding to these sectors, but to better manage the innovation and wider diffusion processes.”

He says the so-called Asian Tiger economies of South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong provide some of the best examples of countries that have succeeded in leveraging innovation to move from being impoverished to being industrially-advanced nations within a generation. How these economies went about this process provides valuable lessons for Africa on how to overcome its own developmental obstacles.

“Africa has many challenges and we need to address them both systematically and holistically. However, many Africans are continuously developing novel technologies that address our socio-economic problems. Thus, rather than mostly adopting solutions that have been developed elsewhere, we should leverage our innovative potential to take our future into our own hands, and to serve as a basis for our unique contributions to the rest of the world,” says Soumonni.

Who is it for?

The Wits Business School Master of Management in Innovation Studies programme is designed for individuals with relevant undergraduate degrees such as business, economics, social sciences, natural sciences, engineering and law, with work experience, and who intend to pursue careers in specific areas of innovation management or innovation policy in business, academia, development institutions or other civil society organisations. It may also be attractive to mid-level career professionals and higher who are responsible for shaping, implementing or facilitating innovation strategy in corporate, public or consulting settings.

Brought to you by Wits Business School.

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