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Skills for innovation in manufacturing

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Innovation is vital for job creation and improving productivity to enable economic growth

By innovation we mean the introduction of new or significantly improved products, processes and services or entirely new ways of doing business within an organisation itself or within the markets it competes in.

Whilst it is encouraging that UK innovation performance is strong against international competitors – it has risen up the Global Innovation Index in recent years, to second place in the 2014 and 2015 rankings – there is still room to improve, particularly around the skills and talents which people need to drive and support the innovation .

As the economic benefits of innovation are realised through businesses, the skills, workplace practices, and management within them are critical to maximising the value of innovation.

To successfully innovate requires a diversity of skills

New skills

Our research and consultation with stakeholders suggested that while businesses commonly recognise some shortages in STEM skills, there was less focus on the skills required to support the management and commercial exploitation of innovation.

Productivity challenge 4: Skills for innovation in manufacturing

As a result, UKCES launched a Productivity Challenge around skills for innovation in manufacturing in January 2015 to focus on supporting the ‘human factor’ in these areas of innovation.  This Challenge followed discussions between UKCES and Innovate UK.

In order to ensure that the Challenge did not duplicate any of the investments that were already being made by Innovate UK, the focus was on that were not touched by regular innovation support. UKCES perceived this group of companies as being the least likely to promote innovation within their businesses, and to adopt innovative work practices.

Five projects took up the challenge. Based throughout the UK, each project represented different manufacturing sub-sectors and sizes, exploring different approaches to boost skills and workplace practices needed to effectively manage the innovation process and then successfully commercialise it. The final evaluation report details the learning from the projects.

One of the projects we worked with was led by Swansea University to develop the leadership of business leaders, and change knowledge and skills before introducing innovation methodologies, tools or models. This programme aimed to develop leaders’ ability to critically reflect in the workplace as well as their innovation processes and practices, and also included good practice visits to highly innovative businesses and peer to peer (critical friend) exchange visits.

3 top tips for developing innovation skills in business

Gary Walpole, Deputy Director, ION leadership, Swansea University highlights the three top learning tips from this project, with quotes from participants:

Tip 1: Engage staff with the business challenges, people like helping solve problems

We now hold a Friday meeting with them where I talk about general things that are going on around the company and then they can talk to me and ask me questions and we can generally try and improve things together.

The programme developed leaders’ ability to create an innovation culture through engaging employees in organizational challenges and in the process intellectually stimulating staff.

Tip 2: Develop leaders’ ability to ‘manage innovation’

We’ve benefitted from various forms of management tools.  We hadn’t really realised the full power of those tools, so we’re looking at using them more efficiently.

The programme developed leaders’ confidence of introducing change by developing their knowledge of innovation tools.

Tip 3:  Make leaders aware that innovation take people out of their comfort zones

I learned about other people’s behaviour…. Previously I thought that change was something you just got on with. I learned that for other people change is not good.  It has helped me to understand employee behaviour.

The programme developed leaders’ awareness of the challenge that change presents to people that have established processes and practices.

Businesses must improve training and workplace practices to increase innovation capability

All five projects have shown that to develop the innovation-relevant management and commercialisation skills so often lacking in UK business is a complex task, especially for businesses with few existing generic management processes or systems.

But, crucially, they have also demonstrated that improvements can be made. This Challenge has shown that whether businesses focused on improving innovation, relevant training and/or workplace practices, both elements are important factors to increase innovation capability.

The experiences and successes of these projects provide examples of effective ways for businesses to maximise the value of their own innovation. We would encourage you to consider what you can learn from these examples and what more you might do to foster innovation and productivity in your own business.


Innovate UK's partners, Enterprise Europe Network, are running a programme called Innovate2Succeed - up to 7 days of fully funded, one-to-one, tailored support for ambitious companies who want to unlock their innovation management potential. Take a look at how this programme can help you manage your innovation.

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