INSIGHT: EPCA ’12: Leadership needed to profit from innovation

09 October 2012 11:19  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

Playing to a different tuneBUDAPEST (ICIS)--Turning innovative ideas and actions into profit is a laudable goal for any company but so much can be lost in the process that the costs and risks associated with it sometimes overwhelm the will to try.

And in an increasingly interconnected world, established corporate organisational structures appear to work against innovation rather than giving it room to flourish.

Room it needs, speakers at the 46th European Petrochemical Association (EPCA) meeting suggested this week. Industries are incredibly structured, it was said, so the question is how can they be freed to get to the ‘sweet spot’?

Corporations perhaps need to create a company within a company, said John Kao, chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation. “Without some sort of hybrid you’re not going to get where you want to go,” he suggested.

“There is a lot of knowledge in the chemical industry that hasn’t been released to its customer base,” former chairman of Belgium’s Janssen Pharmaceutical, Ajit Baron Shetty, said. He believes that sector firms are the owners of wells of underutilised innovation.

But the chemical industry hasn’t developed the kind of visibility that might allow it to tap into the ideas of others, Soumitra Dutta, dean of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University in New York, said.

Dutta’s remarks were telling. Technology (information technology) is empowering people, he said, but companies are being left behind. “How do organisations react to this change.”

“Technology today is no longer about technology alone – it is about people,” and closing the technology gap between people and organisations has become essential, Dutta said.

The chemical industry might lie at the “cusp of innovation” in the future but companies have to become more adept at adopting new technologies and ways to innovate.

In a world where self-organised networks can sometimes offer up breakthrough ideas, old innovation structures appear exposed.

Maybe, though, this has always been the case as corporations have tried to harness the power of research and development and organisational change to drive new products into new markets.

Underlying the most successful and forward looking firms is a corporate culture that provides time and space for free thinkers. This is a management as much as an organisational issue. Kao stressed that years of practice are needed to give individuals the tools to innovate successfully.

It is all about unleashing the potential of workers in an organisation – from the top down and now increasingly from the bottom up.

New technology provides another angle which pushes management outside its comfort zone. How many young employees, for instance, outside of work use email? The preponderance of social networks might be harnessed by industry to provide new ideas for future growth.

“People plus technology leads to innovation,” Dutta said. But “leadership is needed for sustainable profit.”

By: Nigel Davis
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