Ian Stewart: Innovation not about ‘can do’, it’s ‘go do’

Ian Stewart. Picture: Jane Barlow
Ian Stewart. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Ian Stewart, Editorial Director of The Scotsman, reflects on innovation in the business world

This magazine celebrates innovation in Scotland and it does so unashamedly. It does not, however, pretend everything is perfect or believe we can simply “harness innovation” to drive our economy forward into a land of milk and honey.

Quite rightly, Jim Duffy, who has done more than most to embed innovation in Scotland, warns on page 8 that there is much work to be done. There is no room for even the slightest complacency.

At the same time, there is much to celebrate and we must not shy away from being positive about the enormous amount of innovation going on across Scotland.

This issue marks Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design and includes numerous great examples of businesses which have done better by doing things differently – from economic giants like Royal Bank of Scotland to smaller firms like Johnston Fuels and Scotmas which are making a real difference to their businesses and customers through innovation.

The Scotmas story is an inspiring one and highlights the importance of linking up businesses with academic expertise in Scotland. That has been the objective for almost a decade of Interface, described as the match.com of the business world.

However, getting into the middle of business growth and university expertise to find those perfect matches isn’t easy, or glamorous.

Yet it is precisely this kind of difficult, and innovative, work that is crucial to opening up businesses to the external expertise and support that can really make a difference to future success.

Scottish Enterprise’s work with Johnston Fuels illustrates this too. Again, there is little glamour in delivering fuel or fixing boilers, but by identifying the potential for service innovation, the company has made real improvements to its own operations – and made the consumer experience better too.

Innovation can be about that light-bulb moment, that sudden insight but more often than not, it is about hard work.

It involves stepping back from the day-to-day of business, which is hard enough in itself (especially for SMEs) to make a critical appraisal of what can work better.

That might involve improving products, or changing processes. Alternatively, it could be service innovation which drives greater efficiency in the delivery of the service to customers.

Lots of firms are doing it, but why not more?

The big stumbling-block, according to Duffy, is clear; we are doing well at innovation in Scotland despite, not because of, our school system: “As a nation we kill off innovative thinking in our young people as soon as they hit school.”

Duffy wants innovation to be at the heart of our education system, not just a warm, fuzzy, but rather vague goal.

So, with a Scottish Government in place which has put education very much at the heart of its agenda, will we see an improvement during the course of the new parliamentary term at Holyrood? Let’s hope so.

We can – and must – do better, but it’s not just about giving individuals and businesses the opportunity to achieve something.

As Entrepreneurial Spark has recognised for many years, it’s not about a “can do” attitude, it’s “go do”. Don’t just think about doing it. Just go and do it.

This article appears in the Summer 2016 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.