New research about the balance between innovation and operational activities

How can small and medium-sized manufacturing enterprises focus on innovation in parallel with their daily operations? This question has been investigated in the research project Innovate – a collaboration involving a group of researchers from the School of Engineering (JTH) and Jönköping International Business School (JIBS) at Jönköping University as well as six regional companies.

Grafisk figur med två händer, ett kugghjul och en glödlampa

For most companies, innovation is a key factor for maintaining and strengthening their competitiveness. Earlier research on how companies can improve their innovation capacity has, to a great extent, been directed towards larger companies, which have completely different prerequisites for working with innovation than small and medium-sized companies (SME).

“Smaller companies don’t have the same staffing resources and expertise for dealing with innovation and they often work with short planning cycles. As a consequence, the stressful every-day activities often need to be prioritized before more long-term innovation activities,” says Anette Johansson, assistant professor at JIBS and one of the researchers participating in Innovate.

Because of the lacking research related to SMEs, an objective of the research project has been for the participants – five researchers and six companies – to develop knowledge about how SMEs specifically can increase their competitiveness.

Innovation is more than product development

One important insight from Innovate is that companies really need to understand innovation starting from their own business. At the start of the research project, several of the participating companies could not view themselves as innovative.

“To them, innovation was strongly connected to product development and if this was not part of their own operations, they considered innovation as something that others do. During the project, they have realised what innovation means in their organisation specifically. For instance, one of the companies has developed really ground-breaking processes for their manufacturing,” says Anette Johansson.

A new approach to ad-hoc work

Another aspect, which has become visible during the project, is the extensive amount of ad-hoc work caused by, for instance, machine errors, quality issues and unexpected customer requests.

“Ad-hoc work is often seen as solely a disturbance which should, as far as possible, be avoided by better planning. But our research shows that these “disturbances” often bring forth new ideas. If one chooses to view the unplanned work as an opportunity for reflection and new thinking instead of a burden, it really has the potential of generating new and innovative solutions,” says Kristina Sollander, who is a doctoral student at JTH and is writing her doctoral thesis as a part of Innovate.

Important to engage the whole organisation

Anneli Jonsson is the CFO of AD-plast, one of the companies in the project. She thinks that AD-plast’s participation in Innovate has generated great value for the company:

“It has been eye-opening in several aspects for us to be part of this research project. Among other things, we realised at an early stage that we needed to involve our whole organisation to be able to strengthen our innovation capability. Historically, our innovation work has been strongly tied to our CEO, but now we see it as the responsibility of each co-worker to contribute to innovation within his or her own work area. The role of our CEO has changed from micro-management to focusing on strategic planning and the remit and responsibilities of all our co-workers have been clarified.”

In addition to AD-plast, Bufab Lann, Fergas, Hagab Industri, Lundbergs Pressgjuteri and Mastec Components participated in the research project.

A book underway

The researchers have identified nine activities that can help companies to work with innovation while in the same time being efficient in their daily operations. Examples of such activities are to set aside time and build structures, to embrace the ad-hoc work, and to delegate organising and decision-making to a team level.

“The activities as such are known since earlier, the important contribution from Innovate is that we have specified in a more concrete way how you can apply this in practice. Currently, we are working on a book, which is based on these nine activities and that will probably be published this summer. It is one of several tools that we will use to spread our research results to more companies,” says Anette Johansson.

The project was concluded by a webinar, in which the researchers and the companies shared the results and experiences from the three years of collaborative research. The webinar was recorded and can be seen in the video below. Note: The webinar is in Swedish.