The process of innovation in aeronautics
It is argued that, within organisations, innovation is a cultural attribute, rather than something that is based on process. Nevertheless, one can conceive an informal process through which change is introduced from its first conception through to realisation as comprising the following activities: scan, focus, resource, implement, learn (Bessant, 2003). Successful innovation is the property of organisations that take an holistic approach to design and that pay significant attention to the last activity of the notional process, i.e. learning. Innovation concerns not only invention, but the vision and ability to take an idea through to application (which may be commercial success or delivery of societal benefit). In many respects, it is the tacit knowledge that an organisation has at its disposal that determines its levels of creativity and innovation. An historical perspective on innovation in aeronautics is also provided.
The advances of aeronautics during the last 100 years or so have been staggering; technology capable of a short flight at about 7 mph has developed into machines capable of supersonic flight, regular flight carrying more than 800 passengers, space flight, etc. Furthermore, these astounding innovations have turned a novelty into a powerhouse of the world economy. But many would assert (e.g. Young, 2007; Kroo, 2004) that the first 50 of those years were resplendent with significant innovations, whereas the next 50 were characterised by incremental, evolutionary development of established concepts. However, if the nature of the innovation process has changed in terms of the product itself, it is still worthwhile considering the innovation process as applied to the means of production and use of aeroplane technology. Rothwell (1992) has noted that the speed of development became an important consideration in the 1980s, driven, one might conjecture, by the economic circumstances of the day, and that this required innovation in terms of the organisations engaged in product development. But what do we mean by innovation process, and is there a process of innovation? Through consideration of innovation across a number of industrial sectors and the changes that have taken place in the challenges faced by aviation, we shall explore the concept of an innovation process and determine some of the features that enable effective innovation.
Before attempting to define and explain the concept of an innovation process, it is important to first arrive at a definition of innovation itself. Unfortunately, there is confusion about the term. Bessant (2003) has noted that many confuse invention with innovation, regarding innovation as the eureka moment (a notional event we shall refute later) and others that it is simply about science and technology. There is also disagreement about whether innovation concerns radical changes or whether it can include incremental steps. The word innovate comes from the Latin innouare, which the concise dictionary of English etymology interprets as to renew or make new (Skeat, 1993). Hence, to innovate is to introduce something new. With this definition, we shall understand innovation to imply the introduction of a change that may be major or minor, and assert that it must include the realisation of the change, not just the idea from which the change may come. Figure 9.1, adapted from Tidd and Bessant (2009), shows the range of types of innovation.
9.1 Dimensions of innovation. (Adapted from Tidd and Bessant, 2009.)
There is further confusion in the meaning of the term ‘innovation process’. In a good deal of the literature, the term innovation process is used synonymously with product development; this is an unhelpful confusion, because the quality of innovation then becomes measurable only through efficiency (reduced time or costs) in bringing products to market. These values are not those that are most applicable to the commonly accepted examples of the greatest innovators. A more subtle, but nonetheless important, distinction that we shall make is between the ‘process of innovation’ and the ‘business processes that support innovation.’ Technology readiness levels (TRLs) (Young, 2007; Mankins, 1995) are a means of assessing maturity in the process of product development and provide a framework for managing project risk; they are not, however, related to innovation beyond influencing decision makers in the level of change they may be prepared to accept. The use of TRLs generally encourages organisations towards a more incremental approach to product development and perhaps encourages an incremental innovation environment. To be clear, the process of innovation concerns the manner in which a change is introduced from its first conception through to realisation, whereas the processes that support innovation are components of environments in which innovation can flourish.
Societal evaluation of an innovation, i.e. whether it is regarded as innovative or not, depends upon the perspective from which it is viewed. Incremental innovation is almost always measured in terms of cost, time or risk reduction, but probably directly affects a limited population (e.g. the company within which it occurs). Historically, radical innovation affects large proportions of society but very often does not seem to result in financial gain for the innovator. Rothwell (1992) has defined the term ‘industrial innovation’ to mean the commercialisation of technological change. Similarly, Dodgson et al. (2002) have defined innovation ‘… as the productive use of knowledge manifested in the successful development and introduction of new products, processes and/or services’. They go on to provide a description of the fifth-generation innovation process (Rothwell, 1992) through a set of features concerned with organisation, creativity, strategy, knowledge-based competition, lean production and computer-integrated manufacturing. However, this appears to be a set of environmental factors to support accelerated exploitation, rather than a process for innovation itself.
In all contexts (business or otherwise) innovation should be regarded as an important characteristic of agility. In this sense, innovation is the process through which an idea of use is turned from an idea into reality to gain market advantage or individual prestige, secure an escape or effect a capture. In this most fundamental consideration, innovation is simply a process of turning an idea into a tangible benefit. Indeed, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI, 2005) offer a very straightforward definition of innovation as ‘the successful exploitation of new ideas’. This works very well, provided one keeps in mind that success can be measured in many different ways and not all of them are financial. The Confederation of British Industry, recognising the diversity of advances that might be termed innovations, remark that: ‘About the only thing all successful innovations have in common is that they fill a need and so have value. But quite often that need, and that value are not perceived until the innovation exists – at least as a concept’ (Townsend, 1990).
One of the greatest innovators, Thomas Edison, recognised that the real challenge of innovation was not coming up with new ideas, but making those inventions work technically and commercially. Noting this, Tidd and Bessant (2009) remark that innovation is more than coming up with good ideas; it is the process of growing them to practical use. That is to say, innovation is, itself, a process. Our task, then, is to define what that process might be. The process must have a clear and focused direction, according to Tidd and Bessant (2009, p. 19), and they assert that a critical requirement is the organisational conditions that allow focused creativity.
If you type the words ‘Isambard Kingdom Brunel Financial Success’ into Google, the first thing that strikes you about the results is that, mostly, Brunel’s innovations were not financially successful. That is to say, the man often regarded as the greatest British innovator, the impact of whose innovations is still much in evidence 150 years after his death, did not achieve commercial success with many of his innovations. From the world of aviation we can reflect that, whilst Concorde was hugely innovative in a technical sense, it did not achieve the same success commercially. Berkum (2007), in his excellent debunking of the myths of innovation, has remarked that ‘an ideas man is not motivated by wealth, but by the desire to succeed at something (technical)’. Such a man does not measure innovation by a scale other than the technical novelty. The difference between an inventor and an innovator is that the latter not only has an idea, but also the vision and drive to take it through to completion. The question, then, of whether something is innovative or not, or whether it is more or less innovative than something else, cannot be answered through a generalised measurement, because the metrics vary both according to context and according to the interests and passions of the beholder. Some comparison between innovations is, however, possible in a subjective fashion. Tidd and Bessant (2009) have described some aspects of innovation; these are:
• Discontinuous innovation – this covers innovations that completely change the rules of the game. Sometimes this type of change is referred to as a disruptive technology, although, strictly it is not the technology that is generally disruptive, but the use to which it is put.
• Level of innovation – referring to Fig. 9.1, this distinguishes between component and architecture level.
• Timing – this refers to the innovation lifecycle. For instance, at the beginning it may be the product itself that is innovative, but later in the lifecycle innovation may be applied to the way that the product is developed, or marketed.
One such parameter is risk, without which the notion of innovation would probably be fairly meaningless. If the start of the innovation process is an idea (of how a system might work), then there is risk associated with the development of that idea into the realised system; which might not work! The risk is often financial, but it could be the risk to reputation, or to personal or personnel safety, etc. The processes through which the innovation is developed will for the most part be concerned with turning uncertainty into risk, and then reducing risk as investment increases until the idea is realised. Many organisations that deal with complex systems – such as aircraft – have adopted the concept of technology readiness levels (TRLs) to characterise the maturity of the innovative system under development. These were developed by NASA for complex projects many years ago and summarised in a white paper by Mankins (1995); there are slight variations in the definition of the TRLs by different organisations, but those of NASA are shown in Table 9.1.
|TRL 1||Basic principles observed and reported|
|TRL 2||Technology concept and/or application formulated|
|TRL 3||Analytical and experimental critical function and/or characteristic proof of concept|
|TRL 4||Component and/or breadboard validation in laboratory environment|
|TRL 5||Component and/or breadboard validation in relevant environment|
|TRL 6||System/subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment (ground or space)|
|TRL 7||System prototype demonstration in a space environment|
|TRL 8||Actual system completed and flight qualified through test and demonstration (ground or space)|
|TRL 9||Actual system flight proven through successful mission operations|
(Source: Mankins, 1995)
The TRLs represent a gradual reduction in technical risk as the system moves from one level to the next; the financial risk, however, is not monotonic. It may be relatively modest at the initial TRLs, but as the development enters TRLs 4–7 the required investment generally increases significantly, broadly following the S-curve typical of several aspects of innovation, especially take up of new products by customers (Bass, 1969). This range of TRLs (4–7) is the region in which many projects fail – the so-called TRL valley of death – which implies that an important part of any innovation process that industry might choose to adopt must be designed to maximise the chances of pulling an idea of a system through that phase of the development. TRLs are sometimes equated to the innovation process, but they are really related to the product development process and the management of risk, and this does not map exactly to innovation.
The appetite for all sorts of risk is a significant factor in innovation. During the development of jet flight and the bid to break the sound barrier, the advances in aviation were stupendous, but during periods in the 1950s test pilots were being killed at a rate of about one per week (see, for example, Wolfe, 1979). World-changing innovation involves risk-taking, courage, and leadership.
The CBI asserted that innovation is disproportionately due to small companies (as opposed to large companies) because they are prepared to take greater risks (Townsend, 1990), and the imaginative aircraft designer, John McMasters, is said to have rued the consolidation of the aerospace industry into fewer, larger companies because of its negative impact on risk-taking and, hence, innovation (Kroo, 2009). Risk, then, is a critical factor in the innovation process for better or for worse.
‘How do you systemise innovation?’ ‘You don’t,’ replied Steve Jobs, chairman and CEO of Apple Computers (Jobs, 2004). ‘You hire good people who will challenge each other every day to make the best products possible … Our corporate culture is simple.’ This is a consistent message among innovative companies: innovation is a cultural attribute rather than something based on process. Nevertheless, researchers have analysed the innovation process and reported it broadly in terms of implicit (perhaps informal) processes as well as in terms of explicit processes. We shall start by considering the implicit stages of an innovation process.
The traditional view of innovation is as a process that begins with an idea (often supposedly driven by a particular need or necessity). This is referred to as the creative part of the innovation process. There then follows a period during which the idea is developed into a product or benefit that can be marketed so as to realise a financial gain (Fig. 9.2). In his insightful text, Berkum (2007) explains that this creative moment, the eureka moment, is not the sudden emergence of an idea, but rather the fitting of the last piece of a jigsaw that shows the inventor how a change may be achieved. By this, Berkum implies that an inventor may spend years mulling over a problem, gradually building up the different parts of the solution, until at some point the last piece of the problem skips into place and the invention is ready to be developed. The development phase is shaped by the same prevailing environment that probably shaped the idea in the first place. Considerable creativity will be required as the idea is shaped into a product; matching it to the perceived needs or desires of customers or society in general. Thus, we suggest that innovation is a process of research/investigation in the domain(s) of interest, the emergence of an idea for change, development of the idea to fit the environment in which it must be realised, and then realisation. Creativity is present throughout (Fig. 9.2). Innovation could take place by using a technology (for instance) in a new environment or for a new purpose.
Bessant and Tidd (2007) suggest that there are three basic stages to the innovation process: generate new ideas, select the good ones, implement them. Simple. However, this is overly simple because it implies a eureka moment, whereas the organisation or individual must develop sufficient domain knowledge to recognise when the last piece of the jigsaw fits into place. These three stages might be sufficient to be innovative once (lucky), but the challenge is to continue to be innovative. This requires at least two additional stages: resourcing and learning. Thus, as noted by Bessant (2003) and many others, the process of innovation to support continued innovation in an organisation is:
There are many more formalised definitions of the innovation process. Within the aerospace sector, Truman and De Graaf (2006) describe the innovation process as five stages comprising:
The focus of this process is clearly the front end part of idea generation and is perhaps rather light on the tremendously challenging processes for implementation (i.e. through the TRL valley of death). Hamel (2002) suggests: imagine, design, experiment, assess, scale, as the process for innovation; and the CBI (Townsend, 1990) the more detailed: understand company strengths, identify opportunity, screen (go/no-go), concept development – design, assess the potential, manage the technology, evaluate (go/no-go), launch. Both of these appear to regard the innovation process as pretty well synonymous with the product development process. This is not entirely surprising, nor incorrect, but these definitions imply a rather sequential, mundane view of innovation.
Freeman (1974) described innovation as a process that includes ‘The technical, design, manufacturing, management and commercial activities involved in the marketing of a new (or improved) product or the first use of a new (or improved) manufacturing process or equipment.’
This is important because it specifically notes that changes must occur in organisational, management, production and commercial aspects of the firm. Hendry et al. (2002) develop these ideas further by first noting the importance of the whole supply chain, not just the specific firm, a point we shall return to below, and second, that a pragmatic method of technology development involves a hybrid approach in which an incremental development path checks the newly conceived technology against its fit with existing technologies and the expectations of the market. This approach, they suggest, allows for radical ideas generated through good knowledge management and careful risk management in development.
Although the basic activities of innovation discussed above are pretty consistent from age to age, the economic and business environment in which innovation takes place has tended to change the philosophical approach to it over the years. Rothwell (2002) has described five generations of innovation processes. The first generation (1950s and early 1960s) is characterised by technology push. This was an era of significant investment in research and development so that new ideas were generated and these stimulated demand. The innovation process was sequential – similar to those described above. This period coincided with many of the significant advances in aeronautical and astronautic engineering. Throughout human history, war has been a significant driver of innovation, and the Cold War (which produced the space race) was a major factor in this innovative period in the history of aviation.
Second-generation innovation processes (mid-1960s and 1970s) were characterised by market pull, in which inventiveness is stimulated by rather more specific needs. This reflected the need for strong corporate growth, and many of the new technologies in this period were extensions of existing technologies rather than radical new ideas. The innovation process itself remained sequential. It is worth pausing briefly to consider these two approaches (generations): in the first, wild and wacky ideas can flourish, stimulating entrepreneurs to say, ‘gosh, with this new technology I could do such and such.’ Whereas, in the case of market pull, the entrepreneur says, ‘I need something that will do this better, can we not improve this or that technology somehow.’
The high inflation and concomitant pressure on resources during the 1970s and mid-1980s led to third-generation innovation processes, in which research and development was much more tightly coupled to marketing. Rothwell (2002) comments that the innovation process remained sequential but with feedback loops. Thus technology development is tied much more closely to the longer-term commercial strategy, there is little opportunity for wild and wacky ideas, and a much more complex organisational structure is required around the innovation process. To some extent, this could be seen as stifling the creativity part of innovation, with a much greater focus on incremental development and risk reduction. This coincided with a good deal of pressure on the aviation sector with, for instance, UK aerospace being nationalised to secure its competitiveness against the US private companies.
Fourth-generation innovation processes are described as being an integrated mode, in which producers and users are more closely linked, and development takes place in parallel. The aerospace sector was still contracting, with the US companies consolidating from 17 down to just three. Nevertheless, considerable innovation took place, but focused rather on the manufacturing processes and an explosion in the use of IT (and later networked IT) systems. This was strongly influenced by the production efficiency achieved in Japanese manufacturing, which enabled non-sequential approaches to be taken. To what extent the non-sequential nature is associated with the production processes, rather than the innovation process, is not clear, but it is certain that the timescales for production were considerably reduced. This period occupies the 1980s and early 1990s. The fifth-generation innovation process begins from about 1995 and is characterised by systems integration and networking.
Croom and Batchelor (1997) consider two aspects of industrial capability: those of the resources possessed by an individual company, and those associated with relational capabilities that are realised through the interaction of the organisations within the supply chain. The latter is important because it recognises that competitive advantage comes through the success of the relationships in the supply chain and, more particularly, through the knowledge that is generated thereby. We consider innovation as an aspect of management of knowledge below.
What one might term ‘organised innovation’ has been a feature of aerospace and other sector strategies in recent years; see, for example, BAE Systems (2009) and Merrill (2006), in which explicit reference is made to the need to pull innovation through from every part of the supply chain, and mechanisms are put in place to achieve this. Leifer et al. (2000) focused on the value chain as the mechanism through which innovation will be achieved. They argue that all of the value chain must benefit in order for the innovation to be realised, and that for this to occur the technical and business models must be bound together. The company under consideration, wherever it sits in the overall supply chain, must consider what its role will be in the new value chain created by the innovation. For aerospace this must be a critical consideration because of the dependencies between the many stakeholders in the value chain. The innovation process must underpin the process through which value is realised in the entire value chain. Leifer et al. further emphasise, as do many other authors, the critical role of leadership in innovation; unless the chief executive officer and his/her fellow directors drive an innovation culture, then the organisation cannot thrive. The components of such a culture are discussed in the next section.
The preceding discussion on the innovation process provides an indication of the type of environment in which innovation will flourish. Clearly, it must be an environment in which staff are encouraged to express ideas, are sufficiently well informed to understand the possibilities for innovation, and aware of the business and technical environment through scanning for new technologies and market opportunities. The organisation must have a sufficient appetite for risk to pursue opportunities and be sufficiently agile to reconfigure (change itself) to enable the development of new offerings to the market. Needless to say, it must be sufficiently well capitalised to invest in new developments. Generally, freedom seems to be the most common attribute of organisations regarded as innovative (Kao, 1996); freedom to think, freedom to express ideas, freedom to be wrong. Dyson (2002) has described the environment and culture of his company in these terms: everyone who starts at Dyson works on a product from their first day, engineering and design are not separate, everyone is treated equally, remuneration is good, the physical working environment is designed to be pleasing. It is worth noting the result of a recent study by Sinclair et al. (2010) that the working environment has a much greater impact on the likelihood of team success than do the individual competences of the team members.
However, the key attribute with regard to Dyson’s description is holism. Dyson take an holistic approach to design. Similarly, Bessant (2003) remarks that ‘successful innovation management is not about doing one thing well but rather organising and managing a variety of different elements in an integrated and strategically coherent fashion.’ The environment must enable big-picture thinking and must enable teamwork. Jim McNerney (Chairman and CEO of the Boeing Company in 2006) described innovation in aviation as ‘a team sport, not a solo sport’ (McNerney, 2006). In the environments espoused by Kao (1996), the team members should be free to interact in many and various ways to drive creativity; Atkinson and Moffat (2005) assert that enabling self-organisation can be a source of innovation. But for aerospace companies such freedom poses significant challenges, since engineering governance demands rather rigid structures.
• Adversity and competition: the Cold War provided adversity and motivated a great deal of innovation in aerospace; competition is not adversity (Aghion et al., 2002), but it drives innovation through survival needs.
• Rewards and prizes are significant motivators, especially for technical people (Young, 2007).
• The working environment, as noted above. Young (2007) has also noted that access to sophisticated design tools has a motivational effect.
The inhibitors of innovation could be stated as the opposites of the above, but a significant inhibitor is a culture of unwarranted criticism, blame and secrecy. This tends to create an atmosphere in which employees are fearful of expressing their ideas and are not full participants in the innovation process. Jones and Beckinsale (2001) have drawn particular attention to the negative effect of micro-politics, in which people work on their own careers, which can provide either encouragement or hostility towards ideas. Within a single organisation this can be a significant inhibitor, but the likelihood of it being a factor is increased by the enterprise nature of aerospace development, in which there is the risk of tribalism between the staff of the various organisations that make up the enterprise.
Another, rather curious, effect is that innovation success itself may lead, over time, to a decrease in innovativeness. This is because organisations become locked into particular products that discourage change in the future.
‘What’s wrong with bullet lists?’ ask Shaw et al. (2002), ‘Bullet lists encourage us to be intellectually lazy …’ they respond to their own question. In an interesting article about organisational culture, Shaw et al. (2002) insist on the importance of detailed and specific knowledge about the organisation and its products as a key factor in innovation. There are probably few aerospace companies that do not succumb to the temptation of planning through bullet lists. But this article highlights an important aspect of innovation. Innovation is about the management of knowledge.
To be clear, this is not a matter of knowledge management, which tends to be information and communication technology (ICT) focused and deals with explicit knowledge, but rather the management of knowledge, which deals with both tacit and explicit knowledge. Indeed, in many respects it is the tacit knowledge that an organisation has at its disposal that determines its levels of creativity and innovation. Blackler (1995) describes an organisation’s knowledge as being hosted in five forms:
• Encultured knowledge that is ‘the way we do things’ (in a similar way to the stories told by 3M in the discussion by Shaw et al., 2002),
These forms can be related to the innovation process as follows: creativity relies principally on embrained and embodied knowledge; the environment in which ideas can be expressed and selected relies on encultured and embrained knowledge; development relies on embrained, embedded and encoded knowledge; implementation relies on all five. An innovative organisation, then, should have knowledge balanced appropriately across these types. Hendry et al. (2002) have described new product development through the innovation process as a spiralling process of interaction between explicit and tacit knowledge. However, they draw an important distinction between the relative value of explicit and tacit knowledge, arguing that for local markets tacit knowledge is needed, whereas for global markets there is a need to make knowledge explicit wherever possible.
In many aerospace organisations, there has been significant innovation in the tools used for design (e.g. computational fluid dynamics (CFD), computer-aided design (CAD), etc.); the development of such tools essentially represents the transfer of knowledge from embrained to encoded, according to Blackler’s designation. It is interesting to note the recent concern among aerospace companies that their engineers are relying on such tools and, as Dodgson et al. (2002) have remarked, ‘simulators can lead to a lack of understanding of fundamental processes underlying the models themselves. As individuals become more reliant on models to conduct routine or basic calculations, there may be a tendency for younger generations of practitioners to fail to appreciate the full nature of the properties being tested.’ Ironically, the drive for faster, cheaper solutions may be driving innovation out of aerospace design.
As Bessant and Tidd (2007) have remarked, the innovative organisation must pay attention to, what they term, the optional stage of learning in the innovation process. In fact, to remain innovative, learning cannot be optional. The organisation must be a learning organisation (Senge, 2006), which relies on shared vision, reflective conversation, and systems thinking.
New developments rely on increased knowledge in the key disciplines and the ability to integrate increasingly complex systems (Young, 2007); essential attributes of concurrent development.
The development of the approaches to the innovation process (Rothwell, 2002) over the last few decades has indicated the need for increasingly complex organisational structures to deal with increasingly complex innovation situations. The effects of globalisation on the aerospace industry, and, in particular, the increasingly connected supply chain through which aerospace products are delivered, demand that would-be innovators take a whole-systems view of the situation. Maybe this has always been true of innovation, but the complexity of the environment in which innovation is required has continued to increase. As Senge (2006) suggests, we must see circles of causality and understand innovation in the context of the interrelations of complex systems. Similarly, the innovator must view the knowledge at his/her disposal and the delivery of innovation from an enterprise, by which we mean multi-organisational, perspective. There is now a need for innovative companies to be peopled by systems people, i.e. a workforce skilled in taking a whole systems view of the environment in which they must innovate and trade.
We began by remarking on the history of aeronautical innovation, asserting that the first 50 years were a period of rapid and radical innovation and the next 50 a period of incremental change, which largely further developed tried and tested ideas. The notable innovations of the first 50 years were mainly concerned with the vehicles themselves and the technologies that gave them new capabilities. The challenges facing the aviation sector in the next 50 years will concern the environmental impact of aviation, the demands of increasing passenger travel, the continued need to drive down costs, and the increasing use of autonomous systems. Maybe the innovations required are not just improved technology, but changes across the whole aviation sector (legal, social, technological, environmental, financial, etc.). The innovation processes associated with aeronautics must in the future be the processes that support innovation of the whole aviation system. Perhaps it is time for a new paradigm; a new generation of innovation.
Innovation is frequently confused with invention. In fact, innovation is the set of activities through which change is introduced from its first conception through to realisation in some tangible form such as commercial success or achievement of societal benefit. Although one can conceive an innovation process to include scan, focus, resource, implement and learn, successful innovation is dependent more upon environment and organisational culture than on process. Key features of innovative organisations are a focus on learning as part of the notional innovation process and the ability to take a holistic approach to design. Innovation is often a response to challenge, and the environmental challenges for the aviation sector in the future may require a truly holistic approach encompassing not just the technologies, but the legal, social, financial and societal aspects as well.
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