By Joselyn B. Mwine
Where would we be without innovation? It’s not something we spend our time mulling over, but without innovations such as, among many others, the printing press, the humble light bulb, and clocks we would still be living in the dark ages. Fast-forward to today and where would we be without the slim metallic device that slides easily into a back pocket or sits snugly in the palm of the hand? It not only connects us with each other but also to the Internet and a world of information.
If it seems like many of the companies you knew from childhood are no longer with us, it’s because they haven’t embraced innovation. Conversely, if they are still here, it’s because they’ve adapted not just once, but time and again. Companies that fail to adapt risk being made obsolete. Remember the days of Blockbuster videos, Blackberry phones and Tower Records? They are just some of many examples of businesses that suffered and died with the introduction of newer technologies or dramatic changes in consumer behavior. Others, however, have managed to weather such storms and come back even stronger than before. So what did the survivors have that the others didn’t? The ability to innovate.
Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple who transformed the company into a world leader in telecommunications, led the way with the iPhone, which is still one of the most popular and sought-after smartphones today. Jobs, along with the likes of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, is among the roll call of top innovators who have become household names. People renowned for their vision, creativity and single-mindedness in pushing boundaries to achieve their goals. As in many other fields, success doesn’t come overnight. However, it is worth bearing in mind that, for every brilliant idea, there are many more that do not see the light of day. The Steve Jobs and Elon Musks of this world are trailblazers, natural showmen and disruptors who shine bright and use their flamboyant nonchalance to sell their products.
Every large business started small and there are many start-up companies today quietly going about their business and using innovations to successfully transform their business models – and, at the same time, make a positive impact on our lives. All companies need to innovate in order to survive in today’s competitive markets. Indeed, companies that consistently plough their resources into research and development are, in general, more likely to remain innovative over time.
Let’s talk about standards. Increasingly, companies are trying to close the innovation gap. What are the key benefits that standards can offer? How can standards (and involvement in standardization) help companies to innovate?
I have often heard people say that standards stifle innovation. They often think regulations stifle innovation, new business and services. They assume that regulators are there to control and curtail what they want to do.
It is important to understand that standards are dynamic documents that reflect the timely continuous progress of science and technology. Additionally, standards are developed by groups of experts within technical committees (TCs) made up of representatives from industry, non-governmental organizations, governments and other stakeholders. Each TC deals with a different subject, such as quality management, water quality or intelligent food systems. Additionally, standards are reviewed every 5 years to allow for innovation. Within these 5 years, extensive research must be done to prove certain facts true and others false which will then inform a change in the standard.
Not just the finished standard, but the standardization process itself, is already a source of innovation, because companies learn about their suppliers, their customers’ preferences and the requirements from regulators and other stakeholders. In that sense, then, such requirements can support the new product’s development. Another factor of successful innovation is the product’s broad diffusion in the market. Here, standards help to promote both the speed and breadth of the diffusion of new technologies and the products and processes that are built on them. Lastly, standards might even enable new business models based on the combination of open standards and proprietary technologies or services.
Businesses looking to commercialize emerging technologies are part of a developing business ‘ecosystem’, and the stronger they can exploit the networks within the ecosystem, the faster the market for their products will grow.
Standards can make such a difference to the success of innovative businesses: they create a common framework for innovation and establish the ‘rules of the game’. Standards set the framework by defining common vocabularies, establishing the essential characteristics of a product or service, and by identifying the best practice within the ecosystems that will ensure successful outcomes.
Once these rules are in place, the pace of innovation will be accelerated and success will be much more likely. With these rules in place, you are less likely to duplicate what’s already been produced, allowing you to concentrate on the activities within your business and product that really add value. Secondly, your product or service will more easily be integrated with the rest of the ecosystem and finally, investors have more confidence that the innovation will be successful.
Additionally, frequent checks are conducted to adapt and even withdraw standards if they no longer reflect the state of the art in science and technology. While this is already being done to some extent, stakeholders must remain agile in the context of an increasingly dynamic environment. Standardization processes pick up on new trends in science and technology, but also in markets and society, whilst they are still in the early phases. This means that standardization helps shape the development of these new technologies and markets, as it is doing in artificial intelligence, and do not wait to jump in when major decisions have already been taken by the relevant stakeholders. Furthermore, standards are based on the most recent and approved insights from science and technology, which means that they need to be evidence-based. However, standards are also “open” in the sense that dominant players with a strong market power or large portfolios should not be able to misuse standards to exclude their competitors from the market. This means that standardization processes are open to new ideas from innovative players – even suggestions made by start-ups are welcome.
The use of recognized Standards can also give a seal of approval, instilling confidence in future investors and future trade partners all over the world. What’s more, as a benchmark of international best practice, standards provide methods, systems and processes that can help businesses save time and resources, freeing up valuable working hours for fresh, inventive activity. This is where companies need to be if they want to have a competitive edge, attract good talent and ultimately survive in the ruthless world of business. Maintaining the status quo is a thing of the past. The future is for those who innovate
New standards are being developed all the time as new sectors, markets and business models emerge, and the sooner these standards are in place, the faster and more efficiently growth occurs.
The writer is a Public Relations Officer at Uganda National Bureau of Standards.