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Prof. Dries Faems: ‘Top sectors must be organized differently’

29 October 2012

Dutch policy on ‘top sectors’, those fields where the Netherlands excels globally, must aim to further strengthen these sectors. In order to achieve this, the government encourages the business world, universities and research centres to collaborate. Dries Faems, professor of Innovation & Organization at the University of Groningen, has his reservations. Most top sectors lack a clear organizational model which is necessary for making true innovative breakthroughs. In addition, the teams that are supposed to be directing the sectors are ‘dismally non-representative’, according to Faems in his inaugural lecture on Tuesday 30 October.

‘When innovation comes up, it is usually discussed in a general sense. We tend to forget that there are different types of innovation and that these need to be encouraged in different ways. In my lecture I address an important distinction between innovation focused on better exploiting discoveries already made, known as exploitative innovation, on the one hand, and exploring completely new territory, known as explorative innovation, on the other.’

Insufficient exploration?

‘Dutch policy on “top sectors”, those fields where the Netherlands excels globally, is meant to further strengthen these sectors. Both academia and the business world have strongly criticized this policy. According to critics, it is far too focused on exploitative innovation and pays too little attention to explorative innovation. However, if you study the agreements made with the top sectors more closely, you do see that funds and resources have been made available for more explorative types of innovation. The question is whether the organization of the top sectors permits these resources to be dedicated effectively and efficiently.’

Structural distinction

‘If you want to encourage explorative innovation, you must make a structural distinction between it and exploitative innovation. You need to create a separate organizational structure, which provides the opportunity to focus entirely on explorative activities, such as fundamental research and experiments based on fresh technological insights. Such a distinction is not made in most top sectors. A wonderful exception is the chemical top sector, where a separate “technological innovation incubator” has been created, meant to allow new innovation themes to be developed in a secure environment. Such incubators are needed in other top sectors as well.’

Bureaucratic overload

‘The basic aim of the top sector policy is to encourage collaboration between businesses, universities and research institutions. Which is not a bad idea. If you can bring various parties together, they can then naturally give each other new ideas, share costs and risks and foster mutual support. However, such organized support also has drawbacks. In practice, you see that there are so many network meetings being held that managers spend practically all their time attending them. It’s total bureaucratic overload, leading to a lot of time being wasted – time that the managers and researchers involved could be spending on truly innovative activities.’

Collaboration not a must

‘Collaboration is not even an absolute must for explorative innovation. Some businesses and institutions are perfectly capable of developing new technologies and products on their own. Sensible top sector policy should encourage collaboration, but certainly not make it compulsory. That would only lead to funding situations like in Europe, where businesses collaborate in order to gain access to the pile of money available, without any common goal or purpose.’

More diversity necessary

‘Another important condition for innovation is diversity. Every top sector has what is known as a “top team”, with representatives from the business world, government and universities. The teams are dismally non-representative, comprising nearly only white men, middle-aged and older. The “old boys network” has managed to strike yet again – despite the fact that we know full well and it has been academically proven that diversity is necessary for innovation. So it’s high time that women, ethnic minorities and younger people make themselves heard at levels where the important decisions are being made.’

Curriculum Vitae

Dries Faems (Belgium, 1977) has been professor of Innovation & Organization at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen since April 2011. He is also a research fellow at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, where he gained his PhD in 2006, with a thesis entitled ‘Collaboration for innovation: Processes of governance and learning’. He became a university lecturer (UD) in Product and Process Innovation at the University of Twente in 2007, and in 2009 was appointed associate professor. He has been awarded a VENI grant by NWO and various grants by the Flemish FWO (Research Foundation Flanders).

Last modified:18 October 2018 12.50 p.m.
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