Ritam Gandhi, Founder and Director, Studio Graphene, offers his expert advice to businesses on how to build and maintain their capacity to innovate
For many businesses, innovation is the holy grail. Due to its nature, it can rarely be factored into long-term strategic thinking as a guaranteed outcome, but the benefits of reinventing products, operations or workflow can be significant. It is also perhaps one of the most misunderstood concepts in business.
Attaining any form of innovation in a business poses a few fundamental hurdles to overcome. The most obvious is the allocation of resources; those with the deepest pockets will naturally be most likely to have access to the best in-house creatives and developers to conceptualise and deliver the ‘next big thing’, and more cash to funnel into R&D. They will generally also enjoy greater freedom over their operational goals to develop an overarching culture of innovation, instead of chasing increased revenues. With that being said, it must be noted that even in the case of those with the most to invest, there are no guarantees of success. Tech giants Apple are the archetypal ‘innovators’, even when taking a broad view of business, yet we can observe that for every disruptive market-shifting product or service like the iPhone, there are numerous failures like AirPower that fall by the wayside in the process.
Accordingly, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) may feel that innovation is a fanciful concept. After all, ambitious projects could penalise their ability to invest in business-critical operations, and given the market uncertainty and instability of the past twelve months enforced by the Covid-19 pandemic, could be a risk too far for most. However, SME business leaders should consider the benefits of a gradual approach to innovation. Through careful deliberation of their long-term goals, and analysis of how existing technologies can supplement, streamline, or scale up their existing operations, firms can innovate on their core offering without the need for lavish marketing presentation or prohibitive investment in research and development.
The common analysis of the impact of the pandemic is that it has had a stunting effect on future-facing investment. Indeed, the latest ONS figures highlight that investments made by UK businesses in Q1 2021 were 18.4% lower than the last recorded pre-pandemic numbers of Q4 2019. However, this is an aggregate figure which conceals many intangibles in business thinking which may gradually come to light. For instance, with the closure of non-essential work spaces and enforcement of social distancing for the majority of 2020, most businesses were forced to adapt quickly to remote working environments. This required rapid investment in tech infrastructure to facilitate adequate team-working, and constant experimentation and iteration to find the best fit for the employees and management in question. As such, the pandemic’s true impact on business strategy with regards to digital transformation requires a look into the finer details.
Studio Graphene recently commissioned an independent survey of 750 UK business leaders, exploring their digital transformation plans for the year ahead, while recording their decision-making and satisfaction levels in their operations during the pandemic. Positively, a majority of companies (56%) had successfully implemented at least one new technology since March 2020, while 54% said the crisis had inspired long-term digital transformation projects in their business. When taken in hand with less than one quarter (23%) feeling disappointed in their handling of IT projects over the past year, we can observe an encouraging trend towards embracing the technologies which will underpin substantive digital transformation.
Looking forward, nearly two-thirds (65%) of business leaders said that they planned to increase the amount spent on IT as the worst disruptive effects of the pandemic continue to abate, while 62% plan to launch new tech projects in the next year. With such rare accord across businesses towards digital transformation, it is particularly heartening to delve into the types of technologies companies are looking to invest, or increase their investment in. There were high levels of intent towards adopting cloud technologies (63%), particularly among the largest companies surveyed, indicating a trend towards establishing the fundamental platforms which will underpin broader and more innovative transformation projects in the future. Nearly half (47%) of all firms expressed interest in investing in no-code or low-code development software, which can eliminate the need for excessive investment in in-house or outsourced development expertise, and allow core business functions to be managed and upgraded by members of staff.
There was also a strong appetite for emerging tech platforms with potentially higher upside. Technologies like artificial intelligence (52%), the Internet of Things (52%) and augmented reality and virtual reality (48%) demonstrate there is no lack of risk-taking activity as businesses look to drive meaningful innovation projects.
Digital transformation is, in my view, all about the long game. While business leaders will naturally gravitate towards the more grandiose eye-catching product innovations, these will typically be attainable only by the most resourced, or most fortunate of companies. While the appeal of instantly accelerated growth, consumer buy-in and revenue will always lead many to invest heavily in chasing the ‘next big thing’, taking a more gradual transformation process to ensure the refining of the crucial underlying foundations will benefit decision-makers, with much lower level of risk attached. Focusing on extracting maximum utility from established existing technologies such as cloud and no-code/low-code will afford firms the opportunity to build on these with more radical innovations going forward as new technologies emerge. Business leaders should look to innovate, but when it comes to tech, taking it one step at a time can be more beneficial.Why slow and steady wins the innovation race.
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