The innovator and inventor are not necessarily the same person, says Dr Diran Soumonni, who also serves as director of the Master of Management in Innovation Studies at WBS. “We are interested in the management of innovation at the postgraduate level of study as it unlocks key solutions, not only in business but for our broader society. Innovation is fundamentally about problem solving.”
Going beyond science and technology, innovation is where the rubber needs to meet the road, and must deliver value to the people who need it. It operates at the crossroads between people with great ideas and those able to transmit them to various sectors of the economy through great business models, as well as the manufacturing of devices that embody more efficient ways of producing goods and services.
He says the systematic study of innovation, therefore, can sit in a number of places, ranging from the sciences and engineering, to governance and management. “Wits University has embarked on a bold initiative to become a world leader in transformative innovation, while being grounded in a Global South perspective. As such, WBS wants to contribute its expertise in the subject matter to collaborative projects with other schools and faculties across the university.”
The crux of it, says Soumonni, is that those who want to manage innovation will need to know how it can be most effectively deployed to solve business, industry and societal problems at the right cost and in the right way.
Everyone recognises the need for more innovation, but the dilemma that companies and governments face is that there is a risk in investing in it and, equally so, in not investing in it. In this way the devil is in the detail, as a determination must be made, for instance, about what proportion of revenue or GDP should be reinvested in innovation.
Soumonni says to ensure competitiveness, firms have to innovate enough to ensure parity in the exchange of goods and services with other firms and with respect to international trade. “You have to do your part so that you don’t get the short end of the stick. It’s intrinsically about value in goods and services.”
There is potential for exponential reward if companies manage their innovation investment in the correct way. This requires that business leaders and policymakers agree upfront about the purpose of each innovation brief. Is innovation needed to solve a more immediate challenge or a grand challenge? Is it economic growth or equitable growth, because different strategies need to be employed for these different objectives, he says.
The objective will determine the relevant form of innovation and the scale at which an organisation such as a business enterprise or pertinent state agency will address it.
“Through innovation studies we enable professionals to respond to pockets of new value in a particular business environment. We are assuming people will be creative in their own work spaces, but every organisation has certain objectives. The question is, “How do we encourage and manage different people’s abilities for innovation in line with those objectives?”
On WBS’s focus on teaching innovation management, Soumonni cites an example in the telecommunications sector. “From an innovation perspective, we are just as interested in what is required to manufacture the equipment, develop broadband technologies and build mobile phones, as we are in market penetration, low-cost internet access and digitisation in the workplace.”
He differentiates between technological innovation and non-technological innovation relating to novel business models, innovative financing mechanisms, and forward-looking policies that accompany technological innovation. However, he says an understanding of the intersection between those two broad categories is at stake to effectively manage innovation in general, and specifically in the African context.
The Master of Management in Innovation Studies at WBS has empowered many professionals to secure promotions, access new work opportunities and embark on innovative ventures. Some of the postgraduate research being carried out has shaped the perspective of an innovation manager (and social entrepreneur) who created and implemented software-enabled devices to help hearing-impaired people communicate, while another student focused on water treatment approaches that could leverage nanotechnology-enabled solutions in industries such as mining.
Another innovation studies student at WBS is working on a variety of novel financing models to promote renewable energy innovation for sustainable energy access in rural communities.
“Innovation studies asks that we consistently address the question ‘what now?’, and develop and deliver solutions to the people who need them the most. We must be cognisant that even systems which appear to be well maintained, require innovation to operate smoothly and to be relevant and effective in the coming years,” says Soumonni.
Apply for the Master of Management in the field of Innovation Studies at Wits Business School. Learn more here.