Many business owners and executives identify the importance of creativity and problem-solving for their new and existing employees.
“Innovation is the central issue in economic prosperity,” stated Harvard professor Dr. Michael Porter, and years ago I heard Dr. Jennifer Blanke, a senior WEF economist, tell a group of business, academic and government leaders, “Innovation is a critical, critical issue for Canada.”
She suggested that Canada’s innovation performance could be improved with more collaborative business-education partnerships.
Working with SMEs to foster innovative global business tendencies in students
Given my career experience in international business, and my role teaching international business and innovation, I have tried to facilitate partnerships with local SMEs that export.
The objective has been to capitalize on students’ enthusiasm and international connections to enable them to gain valuable experiential learning opportunities while simultaneously providing the SMEs with global business opportunities and creative innovative input from up-and-coming young talent.
The results have been promising.
Assigning pairs of students with the responsibility of gathering research for a real SME regarding potential customers and competitors in previously unknown international markets is experiential learning that has brought benefits to all stakeholders.
The students had to be open-minded and resourceful to gather the intelligence. Then, they had to analyze the data and develop alternative action plans for the SME.
‘The market and competitive intelligence supplied by the Fanshawe International Business Management students has contributed to our new strategic plan and our ambitious growth targets in Europe and international markets,’ said Chris Jones-Harris Co-Chief Executive Officer, Jones Packaging Inc.
London-based Jones Packaging was one of our first SME-partners. Jones bought a small distributor of compliance packaging materials for multi-dose prescriptions based in the United Kingdom in 2005.
The company’s primary clients are pharmacies, and our project analyzed rapidly changing channel developments across Europe and around the world, the role of government legislation and regulations, and packaging requirements from country to country.
As part of the collaboration with Jones Packaging, the students were able to identify the emergence of attractive pan-European customer opportunities, which Chris mentioned was important and timely for the company.
Students gathered detailed research on over 15 countries, and helped Jones Packaging refine and focus its marketing efforts.
“We also learned about an innovative competitive development in Scandinavia,” says Chris. “Subsequently, we have invested in three new positions and are excited about profitable growth opportunities in Europe.”
The value of the program for Jones Packaging has been clear.
‘The hands-on, applied nature of the Fanshawe College student research projects for FITT provided practical, real-life learning opportunities for the students, and real value for our business.’
How we can prevent the stifling of innovation
It is difficult to influence policy in a world of silos and hierarchies. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that our current education system may actually be having a negative impact on students’ ability to be creative and design innovative solutions.
Sir Ken Robinson’s presentation on ‘How schools kill creativity’ is one of the most watched TED talks of all time.
While teaching a course entitled Creativity and Innovation in Business, students were encouraged to investigate several different techniques to enhance their creativity. The class picked topics of interest and applied tools such as the Six Hats process for creative problem-solving formulated by Edward Bono, Mind Maps, a diagram used to visually outline information, Is – Is Not Tool and the Lotus Blossom technique to visually represent interconnected ideas branching out from a central idea or theme.
Amazingly, there were a number of students that were surprised to identify and discover their own styles of learning and innovating.
The majority of students were completely focused on ‘the right answer’ with little interest in exploring alternatives or seeking creative solutions. This perhaps reflects the increasing use of standardized tests and automated grading which essentially rewards process-oriented efforts to ‘study for the test’.
Consequently, I’ve added interactive exercises to the global business courses I teach to help foster innovation among the students. They investigate Michael Porter’s work on innovation and clusters as well as social innovation and open innovation. Students begin to realize the importance of looking for innovative solutions from outside of one company, and even trying to apply innovative techniques from other industries.
I also encourage students to experiment with various types of problem-solving/brainstorming techniques, including Synectics, Appreciative Inquiry and the World Café. These processes all involve a positive approach, seeking input from diverse perspectives and using a moderator to encourage participation by all stakeholders. These techniques were an important factor in many of the most important achievements in my career in global marketing and community-building.
Business professionals in virtually any industry can generate innovative solutions by testing one of these techniques and inviting participation from non-traditional perspectives.
Taking innovative learning into the workplace
Students are then required to apply the new innovative global business tools they developed and recommend creative marketing solutions for real businesses using social media and other e-marketing strategies.
Students have applied this learning to succeed in interviews, to prepare impressive case studies—which a number of firms are beginning to use as part of their selection process—and to succeed in the workplace.
Angela Davidson, MBA, Ec.D. is a graduate of the FITT-accredited program at Fanshawe College. She was recently promoted to Economic Development Officer for the City of Niagara Falls, and she is a prime example of how these tools can be used with great success to help young professionals in the real world, and subsequently help the companies and organizations for which they work.
“I am now working with medium and large businesses in Niagara Falls, and it’s definitely an exciting change,” says Angela. “
My work in the International Business Program is really paying off now!
Angela says the experiential learning at Fanshawe helped her to develop the capability to conceptualize different business models, work with B2B and B2C clients in a variety of industries, and help them identify emerging trends, opportunities and alliances.
Angela provides assistance to existing or prospective businesses and development projects in Niagara Falls such as; real estate and site selection inquiries from international companies looking to expand in Niagara, export market development with local Niagara companies looking to sell products world-wide, as well as consulting on expansion, retention and investment in new equipment with local and foreign-owned companies to assist them in their growth and business success.
Innovation soft skills
Most recently, I’ve been exploring alternative grassroots solutions for innovation with collaborative partners.
Johann Wong, founder of LondonInnovation Centre Inc., and I have discussed a vision to help create an ‘innovation education’ leader. This will offer integrated innovation curriculum and internship/apprenticeship opportunities to graduate ‘innovation-ready’ students who exceed the expectations of employers.
Johann is a respected colleague, serial entrepreneur and founder of LondonInnovation—a non-profit focused on the human elements that make change occur. Its vision is to ‘advance prosperity by fostering cultures of sustainable innovation’, through assessment tools, co-working space, e-learning and networking. By developing a collaborative network of individuals with complementary skills in digital marketing, international business, finance and other disciplines, there has already been progress to operating as an incubator to provide support to young entrepreneurial start-ups, as well as serving as an accelerator to emerging businesses.
Johann and I believe there is potential to add ‘innovation soft skills’ to other courses and programs. Most people think of innovation in terms of technology, social and business model.
Innovation soft skills focus on the human elements or soft skills that drive innovation, such as a person’s preferences toward risk and change, and their values and how well they know themselves.
This also includes their ability to integrate this self-knowledge into their relationships with other people and the innovation process.
Long term, we hope to explore certification with leading associations specializing in ‘innovation’ and/or international trade.
The capacity for human or sustainable innovation can be further enhanced by collaboratively working on social innovation projects and technology innovation in the private sector.
There is an opportunity for educational institutions to partner with other complementary partners to develop sustainable innovation and create competitive advantage.
The future of innovation in international trade
Innovation is an extremely important concept in a business environment. It is one element that secures the future of any organization, however many companies only generate resolutions by innovating when dealing with work problems and opportunities.
I believe innovation is going to be vital as current global organizations seek longevity and dynamic ideas as well as individuals who can to take them into the future.
What other ideas do you have for building a more innovative global business workforce for the future of the international trade industry?