What is the role of the corporate leader in the innovation process post-financial crisis?

A joint project between Cass Business School and the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) pays special attention to the role of the corporate leader in the innovation process and how corporate leaders think about innovation. It also addresses the challenge of generating the capacity for innovation in their organisations, explores what challenges leaders face and how they are facing up to these issues.

The report comes at a time where businesses in the UK and many other developed economies face a potential perfect storm: after a deep and unexpected recession, business leaders face a double-dip recession and an extended period of low economic growth. This may have a fundamental impact on business strategy as the need for customer retention as consistency of returns displaces a historic drive for growth.

Dr Robert Davies who co-authored the report says: "We did this in the context of examining 'new to the organisation innovation', not just 'new to the world innovation'. In other words, we were interested in how corporate leaders proposed to help their organisations deliver offerings, relationships and processes that their organisations had not delivered before."

The research is based upon 20 interviews conducted with corporate leaders. The researchers used cognitive mapping processes and coding techniques to help to "get inside the minds" of members of leadership teams to see how they personally thought about innovation and their roles in building the capacity for innovation in their organisations.

The corporate leaders worked in a range of industries, but a special emphasis was placed on conducting research within the financial and professional services sectors. Of these 20 interviews, insurance operations represented 40% of the organisations analysed, banks and investment banks 20%, professional services firms 30% and other industry sectors 10%.

The key findings from the report are:

1. Strategy and innovation are changing
There is a strong recognition that traditional sources of competitive advantage such as cost reduction and product differentiation are changing. For example, technology is now enabling all competitors to achieve the same cost position. A key task for corporate leaders is therefore to broaden their organisations' approach to innovation and to find new foundations for strategic success.

2. Financial services firms need to be on top of new approaches to innovation in use elsewhere
This is particularly relevant to financial services firms that face a the prospect of two perfect storms - increasing regulation and stagnating growth. Clearly, new thinking about innovation is needed: one that goes beyond simply products and internal processes. Greater consideration should be given to innovation in the fields of customer experiences - how the process of inter-acting with customers differentiates an organisation, exploring distribution routes and seeking out new markets. A major challenge is to create a culture that increases awareness and knowledge of a broader range of innovation approaches.

3. Cost reduction and M&A are innovation blockages
There has been an historic focus, in many organisations, on bottom line growth through acquisitions and reductions in expense base. Some corporate leaders were concerned that this approach had robbed their organisations of the capability to support the forms of innovation necessary to enable more organic growth.

4. Strategy, planning and innovation need to be better linked
There should be a closer relationship between innovation and overall organisational strategy. Our interviews showed that many organisations are not linking long-term strategic objectives with the innovation activities needed to achieve them. Such a linkage would help leaders develop and communicate a clearer innovation agenda for their organisations.

5. The external environment can be a rich source of ideas
The external environment can be a rich source of reasons why an organisation needs to innovate. Some of our interviewees found it difficult to view the outside world from this perspective. Improving the ways in which organisations scan and project their external competitive environments will help to support the quest for innovation.

6. People have different ideas of implementing innovation and change to get the job done
Our research centred on what corporate leaders actually proposed to do to enhance the capacity for innovation in their organisations. There is no single agreed approach: even though the majority of leaders interviewed faced broadly similar innovation challenges; they had different approaches to dealing with them. The most popular approach concerned changes to organisational structures, however others focused on cultural and skill-based changes. However, we were concerned that many of the proposed routes to implementation may not be consistent with either the internal or external contexts confronting the organisations.

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