Steve Gallon, Managing Director of Electrical Enclosure company FIBOX, comments on the future, and explains how innovation and consistency of service will impact on the market post-recession
With 2010 heralding the dawn of a new decade; this year offers many challenges and opportunities for electrical product manufacturers to self-examine, introspect and outperform the decade gone by. While the beginning of the last decade saw the industry's R&D departments adopting positive attitudes toward innovative technology; the end of the decade saw many of those company's finance directors putting the brakes on innovation and adopting large scale cost-cutting measures and implementing huge rationalization programmes in order to ride-out the effects of the recession.
It wasn't that these companies didn't recognise the importance of innovation, but in reality, investing in innovation was not possible. For them, the recession meant financial resources and extra facilities for investing new ideas were just not available, so instead, their focus was on making more effective use of the scarce resources that they had.
Having been in the industry more years than I care to mention, I ?see the notion of ‘if it's not broken, don't fix it' as committing industrial suicide and instead recommend ‘demand, challenge and probe' become the new paradigm.
If there is one thing history has taught us; it's that as the financial situation returns to somewhere near normal, wealth increases and markets stabilize, the demand from customers will change and therefore in order for those surviving manufacturing companies to prosper, they will be the ones that have looked to the future and continued to innovate.
Right now the ability for the industry to innovate is not just critical to success. It's simply a prerequisite for survival.
So, what is innovation? Conventionally innovation has been best explained as the initial recognition of a market need and the development of a unique or novel way of fulfilling that need by producing a commercially viable product or solution. However, in today's market, as the current manufacturing industries emerge from the deepest recession since the Second World War, innovation must go further than purely identifying a need. It's about responding quickly to challenges, adopting new ideas and moving fast to seize opportunities.
However, innovation needs to be encouraged at all levels and in all elements within an organisation to be truly effective.
From a corporate standpoint, the most important thing for Fibox, was to emerge from the economic downturn, stronger and fitter than before and in a position to drive strong growth as volumes increase.
Companies who will achieve this best are those that have continued to innovate. It is not good enough for a company to hope to grow ahead of the market solely on the basis of old products. The companies that will show greatest growth potential in recovery are those that emerge with new products and improved services.
The fact Fibox sees innovation as the most important driver of future growth is based on its ability to develop new products for new markets and gain sustainable competitive advantages within them. Yet, innovation is not something it reserves for product development: It is really applied creativity. Given this definition, all Fibox employees are encouraged to rethink processes, streamline job tasks, implement productivity measures, and continue to think creatively.
Innovation in management is important too, because this dictates the speed of production and ensures the development of suitable ideas make it through to commercialisation.
With this in mind, Fibox has continued with its policy of integrating its product innovation programmes in conjunction with its customers' demands, suppliers' needs and specialist distributors' call for specialist and bespoke products complete with specific components.
A lot of the interesting innovation happens when you work in close partnership with people in organisations who are your suppliers or who are your customers and who can perhaps help you in getting products much faster to market.
This ‘open' innovation policy not only creates added value for the company but is a prerequisite for our future innovation capabilities and helps us to inject new impetus, into discovering new market opportunities and develop new ideas and technologies.
By collaborating with our customer partners, correctly evaluating R&D progress and product roll-outs also have important implications for the company beyond any particular initiative. We regularly introduce our key product development personnel to meet with distributors and customers, because unless they are clear what client customers demand; their innovations will have no value for the end user. Innovation, based on the specific needs of customers, is faster, cheaper and a more dependable approach.
Innovation of service has a role to play in the modern marketing mix too. As mentioned before, innovation is based not only on applying cutting edge technology in a novel way; but as about all round creative thinking.
When Dell developed its first products, its innovative idea was not totally product based; it was its web based distribution methodology that set it apart. This new approach allowed Dell to emerge rapidly as a market leader with a range of ‘me too' products.
The art of ‘two-way' communication is an innovation in itself and continues to emerge as a powerful tool in the strategic arsenal of many leading companies.
In order to make company information and product innovations public, expert journalism is required. As such, technical, business and above-the-line promotion in carefully selected media vehicles are adopted. Furthermore, when innovations are professionally presented, it evaluates them and presents them to the customer in a comprehensive way.
In tandem with professional external communication, the contribution of internal communication to the commercial success of our products and revitalised service innovations cannot be overstated. This is especially true when it comes to delivering straight talk. Shielding employees from bad news is condescending and akin to treating them like children; it implies they are not ‘grown up' enough to handle harsh decisions. So why do some companies do it? One reason is because they feel employees will feel totally dejected and then underperform. But we have found just the opposite; tell people what they need to know and they will reward you with solid performance.
Over the last few years, Fibox has implemented firm communication plans, supported by updates on intranets, texts, and even blogs, not to mention, emails, to help employees know how the company is performing. It is important to listen, it doesn't make any sense to spend all time and effort to find and appoint the best people around, if you are just going to ignore their input.
Therefore, from a Fibox point of view, innovation is about encompassing the company's total creativity, novel thinking, original design and often, but not always new technology.
At Fibox we believe this 360° attitude to continued growth is based on innovation of product in combination with innovation of service through precise and well-timed use of technology will be key to our success in the new decade.