How the Government can help make UK innovation world-class

A decade ago, Britain led the world in managing innovation. So why are we letting that lead slip?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Is it a contradiction in terms to talk about a standard process for something as creative as innovation? The Government clearly didn't think so: back in 1999, the taxpayer funded the creation of the British Standard 7000-1, a best practice guide to the organisational process behind successful innovation. At the time, the standard was a world-first; but despite a recent update (in 2008), the Government has shown relatively little interest in either using it, or promoting it to others. As a result, many (including us, we confess) have never heard of it. Since we're constantly being told that innovation is key to our economic future, this seems rather a waste...
The plan behind the original standard was to incorporate state-of-the-art thinking on all kinds of innovation (not just products, but also services and business processes) into a framework that would give UK plc an edge in the knowledge economy. Not surprisingly, some of the firms contacted about the idea were wary; some worried about revealing trade secrets, while others argued that the process was too chaotic to be codified. But according to Alan Topalian of Alto Design Management, who co-authored the standard, an encouraging number of people working at the sharp end of innovation disagreed. The result, he says, was a standard that helps companies plan for up to three product or service generations into the future - making them more agile, more creative, and better at managing change.
But there's a catch. Despite a major update in 2008, incorporating feedback from users and non-users (much of it very positive), the standard largely remains a well-kept secret. Even the Government, which paid for it, has largely ignored its existence; successive DTI reports on innovation in 2003 and 2005 failed even to mention it, while its departments and agencies seem unaware of it. In other words, the Government is not even utilising the standard itself, let alone promoting its use more widely. So there's certainly an awareness problem.
Another issue may well relate to standards generally. If you've never seen one, suffice to say they're not the most accessible and user-friendly documents in the world. Strict guidelines on their content and presentation preclude stuff like executive summaries and case studies to sugar the pill. We don't know about you, but we think that's a bit daft in this day and age.
In short, it seems to us that a trick is being missed here. Having this kind of framework for managing innovation is a good idea – but only if you promote its existence and make it really accessible to potential innovators. More user feedback could also help sustain our lead by developing complementary standards – for instance, relating to the roles and skills of individuals, rather than the organization as a whole. If you agree, why not write to the British Standards Institution and tell them as much?

P.S. You can find out more about the standard online or in good reference libraries.

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