onthejob | by Bernard McGrath
Innovation – misused and misunderstoood

Reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

I thought that this month I would forgo the preamble and just launch straight into the topic, which is a continuation of last month’s theme of innovation. Well, even if I am unable to inspire readers to action with these articles, the least I can do is to inspire myself! So, I am implementing a new idea with this change to the introduction: time will tell whether it can be classed as an innovation.

Last month I referred to Casper Wassink’s thesis and highlighted two pieces of information from it: the time span to produce a new product, starting from an idea, is on average 30 years; codes and standards play a role in keeping NDT conservative. In the light of these, you may be tempted to throw in the towel and forget about trying to innovate. A lot has been written about disruptive innovation and people are constantly seeking that one idea that will revolutionise the industry or sector and leave the competition behind. If it is going to take 30 years of fighting with codes and standards then it won’t be disruptive because everyone will know about it anyway. But all is not lost.

Having just written about innovation, any subsequent mention or reference to the word jumped out at me and I spotted a number of sources of useful information to share with you. The first comes from an article I had saved from 2012 and rediscovered whilst tidying a cupboard. In the Nuclear Plant Journal, March – April, 2012, Keith Moser, who at the time was the manager of the Innovation Process at Exelon, wrote about innovation in the nuclear industry. If codes and standards keep NDT conservative, the challenge is even greater when you add in regulations, the unchanged core science and operational fundamentals.  Yet, the article describes the large impact that incremental innovation can have and has had on the nuclear industry. Keith describes six key principles which support incremental innovation and I will just highlight a few of them. Opportunities for innovation can be found in all areas of an organisation and, as a consequence, it is everyone’s responsibility to think of new ways to improve effectiveness. It is important to have an innovation process that generates ideas, undertakes stringent assessment and guarantees implementation of those selected. The final principle I want to highlight is the importance of scalability.

In the article, an innovation is scalable if it can be transferred from one site to a different one, ensuring standardisation across the organisation. All engineers will understand the principle of scale and hence scalability, but this was the second time in a short period I had read “scalability” in a business context: the other was in a review of a new book on Intangible Investments. Now, I am not engaging in a lexical game of pairs! Having read the review, I realised that providing an NDT service could be an intangible investment and even if it doesn’t quite fit, looking from a different perspective can often trigger new ideas. Business investments have traditionally been in physical assets such as machinery and technology but, with the move away from manufacturing to services, there is more and more investment in business ideas. The review illustrates this with an example from the book, describing an exercise program which has spread across many gyms in many countries and has millions of regular participants.

As with the article described above, the book review relates the principles of intangible investments. In this case there are four, all beginning with S, one of which is “scalable”. The others are: “sunk” – it is likely to be difficult recoup the investment through a sale; “spillovers” – the idea is likely to be copied by competitors and should be protected; “synergies” – the idea can be adapted with other ideas and technologies. Whilst you ponder an intangible NDT Service, I will close with a few figures on innovation.

In November 2017, the government published a white paper on Industrial Strategy. The strategy has five foundations (Ideas, People, Infrastructure, Business Environment and Places) and four challenges (put the UK at the forefront of the artificial intelligence and data revolution; maximise the advantages for UK industry from the global shift to clean growth; become a world leader in shaping the future of mobility; harness the power of innovation to help meet the needs of an ageing society).  I would like to point out here, that being on the cusp of the ageing society, this last challenge is not the reason I have been promoting innovation! The white paper has a lot of useful information in it, including the following:

  • Over half of the UK’s companies with 10 or more employees are innovating. Of these:
  • 51% used new business practices
  • 36% introduced new products
  • 25% innovated in their processes
  • 38% used new methods of organising their work
  • 30% changed their marketing concepts or strategies


So, if you decide not to seek to innovate, you may be left behind by more than 50% of your competitors; if you do seek to innovate, there is a lot of scope for stealing an advantage.