Regrets? I have a few….
23 December 2013 by David Bott
One of the attractions of a valedictory post is that it gives me an excuse to look back over the last 6 or more years, and consider what has gone well and what has gone “less well”. Leaving at Christmas also gives me to time to think. This list in personal and very much in the “to do” mode I discussed in the last post! J
✔ Challenge-led approach: One of the approaches we inherited from the original Technology Strategy Board was the belief that “technology push” wasn’t the most effective way to get economic growth. Instead, they suggested that our programmes should concentrate on the areas where technology would find application as products or services (you might call them markets) and seek to identify and clarify the needs of those areas, then work with companies who could develop products and services that addressed the needs of those areas. This, so their theory went, would lead to faster and more efficient economic growth. Also, given that many of the bigger markets were in areas that society looked to government to lead in (health, energy, food, buildings and transport), our status as a government agency would enable us to understand the policy goals of the relevant government departments and translate them into “business English”, further adding those companies we supported. At this point, I would suggest that this has been a good move!
✔ Support for the whole journey: When we were set up, we had two active tools to use – the Knowledge Transfer Partnership and the Collaborative Research & Development Grant. CR&D (as it was widely know) was the linear descendant of the LINK programmes, which had been largely focused on connecting large companies with universities. Also, the history of DTI competitions had been somewhat stochastic as they responded to apparently random policies! We realised that we had to support companies – small, medium and large – in the early stages of new projects, where they would be evaluating ideas against their understanding of market needs, through the development phase (where the Collaborative Research and Development grant could be used to support interactions up and down the supply chain) and into the final validation phase, where they tested out their ideas in situations close to the real world. We therefore developed Feasibility Studies to enable people in both large and small companies to test out and validate their ideas fast and cheaply. We also realised that the demonstration of new products and services needed to be closely monitored and measured and that the data would enable later generations of companies in this space to work from an easily available database. Again, I think we have made progress on this. The Innovation Platforms started the “joined up “ approach and the Catalysts have added to the roster.
✔ More than money: As we worked more closely with small companies, we also realised that money wasn’t their only need. Many did not have the personnel resources and access to information they needed to guarantee success. This came to a head with the first Launchpad and led us to develop a variety of mechanisms to help with access to finance, connections into other companies within their supply chain, insight into government regulation and standards and help with communicating the unique commercial potential of their products and services. Still a work in progress (with the Launchpads and Missions being where we have cut out teeth), but we know where we have to go!
✗ Asking the right questions: There are really only 4 questions we ask – and we ask them at all levels of activity, from selecting areas to support to assessing project proposals. The first is about the needs the product or service addresses, the second is about the capability to deliver the product or service and the third is about the timing of the delivery. All these are standard questions asked in business. These are the sorts of questions any company (or unit within a larger company) needs to answer if it is to unlock resources to deliver the project. The final question, and the one that derives from our use of taxpayers money, is simple – it is why should we give you taxpayers’ money? What will happen differently because we do? However, our competition process, which we inherited from the DTI and haven't changed much, asks 10 questions – and in such convoluted language that many do not see the simplicity of the request for information. From the comments I have seen over the last 6 years, it is apparent that our assessors are also of variable quality and often evaluate the answers against their own interpretation of the question rather than the one intended – another consequence of us avoiding simplicity and plain language. What we need, I believe, is a radical overhaul of our competition process to ensure that anyone entering finds it easy to explain why the money would make a difference and can therefore use the case anywhere – not just for a government agency!
✗ Telling people the truth: This confusion about the questions and the variability of the responses from our assessors leads to another problem. The feedback companies and consortia get when they are unsuccessful is often a composite of differing views and difficult to extract clear and unambiguous messages from. If we do not give people money to progress their ideas, we need to give them feedback that enables them to develop their idea or learn to communicate it more clearly. Once again, we need a push to make this happen. We still get confused and unhappy companies who don't understand why we don't support them!
✗ Managing our portfolio: Every project we support is monitored for progress, but the problems we have had over the last few years in predicting our spend (see my earlier post on this) has meant that we take more notice of whether the project is proceeding on its financial plan than whether it is going to deliver the necessary development to culminate in the intended product or service and, hence, economic growth. Until we focus on getting companies to the end of their journey from concept to commercialisation, we won't achieve the quality and uniformity of success that would give real value for money from our financial support mechanisms.
? Communicating success: Although it is based on too small a sample size to be statistically significant, the analysis of the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform suggests that the companies we support can get up to £35 back for every £1 given in grants. Given that our annual grant spend is about £400m, then if everything we did was as effective as the best thing we do, the companies we support would contribute £14bn towards growth of the UK economy. That is less than 1% of the annual UK Gross Domestic Product! That suggests that we cannot directly make much of an improvement to economic growth with our grants alone! To get the scale of growth the UK requires, we have to make innovation an infectious disease. We have to hold up every example of successful innovation that leads to business growth and use it to inspire other companies. We started this project this year and are building a veritable arsenal of stories that we are putting up on our website, feeding into the media and sharing with government. Perhaps having examples of success will spur those who we do not have enough money to support to do it anyway – success does give you more of the most flexible type of money!
So, a good report card but not a stunning one, with lots still to do. However, when compared to other organisation and innovation systems, I believe we have made more progress over the short lifetime of the Technology Strategy Board than many equivalents. What we need now is a focus on the output and consistency and clarity in the delivery to make a major contribution to UK economic growth. I wish my (soon to be) ex-colleagues luck!