Innovation is the only means for sustainable differentiation

Further from my earlier view, it seems to me that there is much debate and self-rationalization about where innovation is and where it will remain, with some expectation that it won’t change in the near future.  This view is just out-right dangerous.  The world is in rapid change, and we are seeing major changes when it comes to investment in R&D.

Please read my post to BusinessWeek:

Emma Lo Russo

Interesting this debate has a certain degree of fixation on “western innovation.” That somehow it is “more innovative” than other regions’ innovation, especially innovation emanating from “the east.”

Yet the recent data (much of it factually from the US) tells a different story: Innovation is shifting. By any measure, China, India, and other countries are investing more in R&D, are exporting more high-technology goods, and are selling more to internal markets. Most significantly, they seem more enthusiastic about accelerating these effects, and moving into new areas.

Here are some examples from my desktop. According to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, in its report called The Atlantic Century: Benchmarking EU and US Innovation and Competitiveness, China has changed its innovation ranking score by 19.5 over the past 10 years (the highest margin) and tops the ITIF’s table for change, while the US has changed its score by 2.7, and is at bottom.

Elsewhere, the WTO reports that China’s electronic exports grew 173 times in the 17 years to 2007. The US grew four times. The proportion of total exports from hi-tech goods also grew in China. The US, albeit with a much larger proportion, halved.

OECD countries awarded 6.7 million degrees in 2004. China awarded 2.1 million–one-third of all the OECD countries combined. And again, according to the OECD, China was only 15th on the world patents list in 2005, but grew patents by 35% that year. The US grew by 3%

So the argument is not that innovation is region-specific, but instead that acknowledgement is required that the world and innovation leadership is changing. Where design is created, what designs are being done, who it is done by, how it is done, even where designs are being manufactured, is all under a massive period of change.

It’s re-skilling over and over again, combined with innovation, that should set the agenda for future success, rather than dwelling on past and potentially fading glories.

This is what is happening in countries such as China. China is no longer about so-called cheap labor. Nations such as China, in many cases under national policies, are investing in innovation and re-skilling en masse. In electronics design, the industry in which Altium operates, the appetite for technical training and new development software runs unabated. Altium, as one example, is growing sales in China three times faster than other regions. And the desire is stronger about looking to the future rather then in rationalizing past decisions or investment. Whilst it is easy to argue that there is nothing to rationalize if payment of the tools they were using was not there in the first place, we should look to see how liberating that can be when it comes to evaluating what is required to lead and the willingness to leapfrog yesterday’s design paradigms. When I visit and meet with customers, universities, and partners in China, the desire to be ahead of the rest of the world, along with considerable self-belief, and commitment to investing in world-leading tools and practices are obvious.

Our future, as individuals, as companies and as nations, is in our own hands. Governments should focus on investments for companies that focus on technology innovation and in re-skilling people and organizations over and over again. Individuals should clamor for these new skills, preferably building on those they have already.

Let’s not hide from the challenge and the opportunity to do things differently. We will continue to seek great new products that are connected and smart. Someone, somewhere, will make the products we want to use or own, and at a price that we are prepared to pay, and for the quality we expect for that price. These are all “ands,” rather than choices to trade off, and in truth become the price of entry if you want to compete.

As to who will lead in various sectors, it will be down to us as individuals, and us as individual companies. The US has had a history of leading the world in innovation and electronic products, to assume it’s always going to be that way without changing its view of the world, what will be required, where competitors will be, and where the markets will be, will be required. Focusing on what makes us special requires real discipline of approach around true differentiation, being first to market, being cheapest, having historical leadership–none of these will do and thinking so will be a big mistake.

Innovation is the only means for sustainable differentiation.