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24th October 2017, Brussels

Ahlstrom-Munksjö discusses innovation in today's connected world

Omar Hoek, Executive Vice President at Ahlstrom-Munksjö. © EDANAWith the Nonwovens Innovation Academy taking place this week, EDANA's Scientific & Technical Affairs Director, Marines Lagemaat, caught up with keynote speaker Omar Hoek, Executive Vice President at Ahlstrom-Munksjö, to discuss innovation in today's connected world.

Marines Lagemaat: You’re going to talk about innovation’s toughest question: what are we really trying to solve? Could you already reveal (part of) your viewpoint in a few lines?

Omar Hoek: People try to find solutions based on their rationale and knowledge. Especially in the scientific world: you learn critical thinking methods and apply that in research and development.

In today’s connected world the opportunities and trends are driven by impulses, trends and technology that can change at the speed of light and overnight....

Are we prepared, structured and do we have the right DNA ready for that unstable mass and, do we want to lead or follow this trend?   

ML: Innovation, in particular the process of innovating is difficult to manage, some companies use some form of stage gate process. What is your experience with such tools? Do they meet their purpose? Are there alternatives?

OH: Innovation processes “a la” stage gate, come from eras where we wanted control and research and actual innovation had a clear predictable target and we got “organised” around it for structural, budgeting and accountability purposes.

In today’s world we see a different type of innovation, fast pace vs slow, predictable vs random behaviour, existing versus new technology, with or without external partners etc…

It gets very complex to make a one size fits all model for this type of innovation… but a mechanism that has its ear to the ground when a new trend-train is coming is an absolute must

ML: How can multinational companies like yours innovate and optimise the know-how that is available at different sites? Related to this, how can large companies share know-how between sites?

OH: In the historical material industry, sites where very much a standalone capability with their own eco-system and boundaries. In today’s world these doors have been opened and synergies happen between competencies centres as matter of survival.  Multiple sites belong to a single business and cross virtual teams are established to deliver the desired outcome. Where people sit has become secondary.

In short: business targets become the true north, not necessarily the location and boss you report to. This requires strong strategic leadership and communication to make people believe and follow.

ML: Would you qualify innovation as a pull or a push process?

OH: That fully depends on nature of the organization. Stable, controlled and predictable innovation is most of the time a push process (sell what we can and control), whereas a pull process deals with all the uncertainties from failing and financial disaster to great success and victory - so a much broader spectrum. 

 A hybrid model where you fully anticipate consumer needs and have an organization dedicated to that (pull), but combined with the muscle of “all means” technology (push)  spread through right channels and markets…

You need to be so to say right and left handed… and that feels naturally uncomfortable.

ML: More often than not, companies try to answer the question ‘how can we create value for the consumer’ while finishing the sentence with the words ‘using our current assets’. This is very understandable, or are they missing great opportunities this way?

OH: Using current assets is the natural gravitation to the belief that it fits your existing competencies and using those won’t get anyone fired – isn’t it?  Reality however is that many assets and technologies can be accessed through alliance, partnerships or acquisition.

What is much more important these days is that you have channel access, understand the language, identify the opportunity and develop solutions that ultimately need to be produced, ideally on the internal assets. But, if it is financially viable, why not look outside or invest in a new area?

Building a new innovation business should be led by the most senior and respectful leader in a company to disrupt and overcome challenges. Many companies make the mistake of giving a small project or a new innovation in the market to a young graduate student (seen as low risk) – imagine the natural struggle and failure ahead.

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