“Enterprise Ireland’s remit is vast; it has responsibility for nurturing growth oriented Irish companies and assisting them break into international markets”, says Chief Executive Julie Sinnamon.
Every industry sector from food to forestry falls within Enterprise Ireland's orbit and the common thread linking them all is innovation. Indeed, the first sign you notice in the organisation’s headquarters tells you that this is where “innovation means business.”
In effect, Enterprise Ireland is responsible for the promotion of the national innovation agenda – an agenda which chief executive Julie Sinnamon believes is absolutely critical to future economic success. She also believes the current position regarding innovative activity in Ireland is quite good but this should not be taken for granted.
“We are in quite a good place at the moment but there are challenges ahead”, she says. “We have things in our favour but we have to get ready for tougher times should they come. We have to avoid complacency.”
“Innovation; what is it actually?” she asks. “It’s quite a fluffy word. People ask what it is exactly. But what is it? It’s a very open term. People very often think of it as research and development and white coats in a lab. To me, it’s much wider. It’s about bringing new knowledge and new thinking to business opportunities and challenges. Everything from processes for dealing with customers to new product development, to ensuring that the voice of the client is leading and directing the white coats.”
It can also be as simple as just fixing elements of a process or business which aren’t working as well as they might. “Everything we do differently to make a business more productive and efficient is innovation. That needs to be understood.”
Attitudes are also changing. “Companies at the top of the pyramid in terms of scale always had a strong commitment to innovation”, she points out. “One of the big changes we have seen over recent years in particular is the number of companies which have started to realise innovation is essential if they are going to achieve ongoing growth.”
This has translated into a change in the nature of the engagement between Enterprise Ireland and client companies. “Increasingly we find in our dialogue with companies that the innovation agenda is a normal part of their business. Ten years ago when we went to companies and mentioned it they would have told us they don’t do innovation. There has been a huge improvement in awareness across companies of all sizes and in all sectors of the need to innovate.”
Support and development
At least some of this change is due to the numerous support and development programmes run by Enterprise Ireland over the years. Among these is the Leadership 4 Growth Programme which aims to enhance the leadership and strategic capability of CEOs of SMEs to lead scalable, innovative companies capable of growing exports and jobs in Ireland.
More recently, the organisation has introduced the Innovation 4 Growth programme. Run in partnership with the Irish Management Institute, the programme is specifically designed to meet the needs of ambitious and entrepreneurial Irish companies seeking to use innovation as a way to unlock opportunities in the marketplace. It aims to fasttrack companies through an end-to-end innovation learning and practice journey and support them to deliver on at least one innovation initiative.
“It isn’t hard to get demand for companies to go on programmes”, Sinnamon notes. “There was very strong interest. Ten years ago they might have said they were not big enough for them. They now realise that innovation is key to their survival, not an optional extra.”
She points to the introduction of lean business principles into Irish enterprise as another driving force behind the overall improvement in innovation. “One of the programmes we have run that has been very effective is the Lean Business Offer. When you go and introduce lean principles into a company you look at all the processes. You take each element and look at how you can make it as effective as possible – that’s innovation. Introducing lean introduces new thinking. Once you get people to think about how to do things better, that’s innovation. It’s not white coats.”
One of the sectors that benefited greatly from the introduction of lean principles was food. “We worked with the food sector during tougher times. The introduction of continuous improvement processes and searching for better ways of doing things, including new product development, really helped.”
Necessity is the mother of innovation in many cases. “In tough times you have to be lean, you can’t afford fat in the system”, Sinnamon points out. “Ireland is not a low cost economy. If you are going to compete internationally you need leading edge processes and products. The world has changed. We live in a rapidly changing world where we are all impacted by technology. You have to be innovative if the technology isn’t going to destroy your business.”
This doesn’t just apply to high tech companies who face challenges to their product offerings from competing technologies. Companies in all sectors have to deal with technological advances in areas such as sales, distribution and production processes which can place them behind the competitive curve. Keeping pace is a must.
“The high tech companies just do it”, she notes.“ But there is an increasing awareness among lower tech companies that technology and innovation must take centre stage and they need a strategy for it. Many of them are taking steps. This can be anything from their online presence to taking in younger graduates. Younger people are naturally innovative and tuned into technological trends. As these people come into companies they are bringing innovative energy and creative thinking with them. We find that in Enterprise Ireland as well. The graduates we recruit bring in new skills and awareness in areas such as social media marketing and so on.”
That online presence is of growing importance. “It doesn’t matter if you are actually buying or selling online. These days, when potential customers see a new product or service, they Google them. That makes a company’s online presence vital when marketing to new customers. If an Irish company goes into Central or Eastern Europe the first thing the buyer will do is Google them. Companies have to ask themselves is their online presence the shop window they want. It’s a fast changing environment. Technology drives decision-making and businesses need to be tuned into it. It’s about the application of the available technologies and maximising the upside.”
When it comes to direct promotion of innovation, Sinnamon believes the Enterprise Ireland Innovation Vouchers scheme has been very important. “They are effectively cheques for up to €5,000 to cash with a university or institute of technology that allows companies access to their expertise and problem solving capability. Some more innovative companies have collaborated with others to resolve a problem and put value of vouchers together. Smaller R&D grants are a really straightforward way of doing it. Then we have innovation partnerships between third level institutes and Irish firms. There are lots of options out there.”
Enterprise Ireland’s network of 15 technology centres around the country also play an important role. The centres see groups of companies, both Irish and overseas, coming together to work on nearto- market problems. “The centres are driven by the sectors involved”, Sinnamon explains. “It is the group of companies which decides what to work on. The work in the centres is collaborative, with individualisation coming later. The level of collaboration within Irish industry has increased significantly. There may have been competitive issues previously but they are now realising that working together can help companies win international business.”
Ultimately, innovation must come from within. “Innovative companies find ways of engaging people at all levels to influence how the business can get better and improve. Customers know what’s wrong with your product. The best companies know this and make use of customer views to improve their processes and products. We have to take the mystique out of innovation. It is just part of the normal business process. We also need to show that it’s about improving results. If innovation isn’t delivering improvements to the bottom line then it’s not effective.
“Multinational companies always talk about the flexibility of the Irish people”, she concludes. “That sounds trite but Irish people are by their nature innovative. It’s part of our DNA. Companies need to ensure that their structures and processes encourage innovation to flourish. That means encouraging their people to challenge and question existing processes and ways of doing things. This is vitally important to the innovation agenda and making it succeed for businesses.”
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