What do Penicillin, microwaves, pacemakers, insulin and super glue have in common? Some scientific breakthroughs come about after meticulous, objective-oriented laboratory work finally provides the result the researcher anticipates.
Others, like the ones above, are completely unexpected and often occur as a result of some ‘happy accident.’
However, as frequent as these examples are, the reason they have been so life changing is that we were able to translate them from ‘happy accidents’ into something useful – applying the results in a completely new and unexpected way.
We are fortunate that Fleming saw the link between penicillin and bacteria, but life would have been completely different if no one translated his discovery into a game changing medicine.
That challenge of translating discovery to application is one that we still face today, but now the problem is compounded by the sheer volume of discovery and innovation happening across many sectors, both at a grassroots level and in R&D departments of major companies.
It can become difficult for an organization to stay ahead of the curve, react to technological changes in real-time, and, most of all, know which ‘happy accidents’ it should invest time and money in.
Recognizing the value of some innovations, translating them into applications and transferring those technologies within an organization or sector becomes a much more complicated process – a process full of missed opportunities.
The reason for these missed opportunities can vary. In some instances, people find comfort and familiarity in what they know. Some may be reluctant to learn new pieces of technology. Others do not have the time to increase their exposure to other disciplines. An organization may be siloed, preventing real time R&D collaboration between units and hindering an integrated approach to innovation.
When placed within the context of annual targets and end of year appraisals, the reason why an expected outcome trumps the importance of unexpected outcomes becomes quite clear. These challenges are true of every organization, but the negative impact they can have on business success is especially apparent in companies that depend on new technologies to stay competitive and sustainable.
There is no doubt that short term objectives are important. But to secure breakthrough technology innovations that have the potential to change the way we work, the way we consume resources and the impact on our environment, a long term vision is needed.
Achieving success with a long term vision requires a broader approach to scientific research, taking into account technologies that may be critical in the near future. Integrated solutions – think smartphones with all its different soft and hardware – are now the norm across most sectors. When it comes to innovation, companies today are self-sufficient. Staying competitive requires collaboration, both across industry sectors and within organizations.
That is why people within organizations must work across departments and disciplines to develop an integrated approach to research and development. The easiest way to do this is through formal systems such as cross-company working groups – a top-down approach.
But equally important is how you encourage the informal ways that people interact and work together. Networking is an essential component of this and becoming more important than ever.
For young professionals, networking is a good way to draw on the institutional knowledge of more senior innovators who can share their knowledge and train the next generation (acting as a mentor). At the same time, you expose more established employees to the ideas of younger innovators, who may be more attuned to current discovery trends.
Companies succeed because the transfer of knowledge between generations allows you to lay out a long term vision for your company, while always keeping the vision for innovation fresh and current.
Electronic media has a huge impact on the way companies communicate internally across different research and development groups. For one, geography is essentially obsolete. A company can develop a team of innovators from across the globe that work in real time and draw on strengths and insights across an organization as a whole.
Electronic media also allows companies to provide employees with forums for a free flow of ideas—an organic environment for knowledge transfer and discussion where those ‘happy accidents’ can take shape. After all, innovation draws on and feeds new innovation.
These trends will no doubt continue to develop. Making predictions is always hard but the companies that make the best use of these channels will stand to benefit.
Ultimately, organizations that achieve a culture of effective cross-departmental dialogue and develop channels, formal or informal, to allow that dialogue to happen will be best positioned for the future. Those companies will also be most effective in translating discovery to reality and transferring technologies from one business area to another.
As history has shown, we have to encourage ‘happy accidents,’ but be ready to capitalize on those opportunities. These types of innovations are often the real game-changers.
About the Author
Dr. Neal Williams is Lead Scientist in the Materials Science Group at AkzoNobel. Dr. Williams holds a PhD in Colloid and Polymer Science from Bristol University and has worked in various technical groups in AkzoNobel and prior to that in ICI for 26 years both in the UK and Australia. He works on step change technology for the AkzoNobel’s coatings and chemicals business. He has authored or co-authored 14 publications in scientific journals and 12 patents.