Nokia, a mobile phone manufacturer, has led the industry since the 1980s. A recent article in the Economist (The Curse of the Alien Boss, August 7th 2010) confirmed that Nokia holds the leadership in headset sales and has the industry best distribution system. Thinking that this is the same company whose core business once were Wellington rubber boots and car tires (both still produced) is quite remarkable.
Nokia success, I believe, is the result of a mix of ability to adapt to the economic crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s that hit Scandinavia and in particular Finland due to the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ability to innovate backed up by strong R&D approach. The top class Finnish education system. This mix gave the necessary knowledge edge to Nokia.
This innovative edge seems, however, to have gone missing with the advent of smartphones. Apple, HTC, Google dominate the market both in terms of hardware technology as well as software. Nokia is now catching up rather than leading on innovation. The centres of gravity for smart phones are Cupertino, the Silicon valley, and Taiwan and no longer Nokia’s R&D centres.
In my opinion this shows how fragile innovation lead can be and how quickly an organisation can fall behind on innovation, transforming new ideas and into products that consumers want to buy. But why is that? What is behind this sequence of events?
Maybe is inevitable to fall behind. Leading for too long, as in long distance running is a lonely venture, after some time one looses the reference point, the is no runner in front to catch up with and surpass. Leading all the time requires a lot of mental strength.
The same applies to think tanks working in development, competing and leading on research and the influence that this knowledge exerts. They face the same risk and challenges as Nokia. The dilemma in think tanks is how to avoid repeating yourself? How to remain vigilant and spot key unanswered questions? How to avoid getting used to specific research areas or geographical areas or indeed donors? How to lead the debate rather than being simply a participant?
There is of course not one answers to these questions. Looking at the future is always a guessing game. It requires also some lack. However, the more knowledge is acquired and stored within an organisation, the better the chances to be right on those guesses and spot new developments ahead of time. The next step is to believe in those guesses and invest int them. I think that Nokia spotted the new trend set by smart phones, but probably did not believe that people would buy them.
European think tanks need to spot the new centres of gravity in development. They need to spot new discourse, be part fo the new narrative in new partnerships with research institutes overseas> they need to build new alliances and believe in them. This means to expand the horizon and acquire a fluency, for example, in working in Mandarin, Cantonese, Bahasa, or Portuguese. Approach new partnership in equal terms and with the curiosity of discovering new cultures and a new development paradigm. It is of course important to remain linked to the debate in Europe and maintain the relationships and networks that sustain research, but this should not be done at the expenses of missing to build crucial links with the new centres of gravity in development.