Can We Be an Innovation-Driven Nation?

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Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”–  Steve Jobs

For most people, the word "innovation" educes images of inventors, new technologies and new products. They tend to envision iconic images such as airplanes, computers, rockets, radios, TVs, cell phones, etc. This is quite understandable considering the impact of these devices on the development of the modern world has been marvelous. But what actually is innovation? A textbook definition of the word states that: “Innovation generally refers to renewing, changing or creating more effective processes, products or ways of doing things.” I thought that definition was very succinct but a bit too boring. So, I consulted the literature to garner insight on how great minds of the past and present perceive(d) innovation; and I found some interesting perceptions that enabled me understand the word in a better way.

I first searched the writings of Peter Drucker who argues that, “Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship…the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.” W.  Edwards Deming on the other hand, suggests that, “Innovation comes from the producer- not from the customer.” But Steve Jobs puts it in a more succinct way: ““Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” I like the way Jobs puts it; he reminds me of Liberia where we fail to encourage innovation and therefore we continue to follow others.

I made the avowal above that we fail to encourage innovation because of two experiences that I have had and the experiences of many other young Liberians who had proffered innovative solutions but had been turned down for several reasons. My personal experience began in 2004 when I graduated with my first master’s degree. I had designed and written a system which I termed, “CENTINOL”, the acronym for Central Intelligence Network of Liberia and brought it to some officials in Liberia. My wish at the time was that the system would be adopted or be used as a framework for the development of a system that could be used by our security forces.  I was told then, that Liberia was not ready for such a system; and that was it!

Most recently, I had requested the University of Liberia to allow me perform an action research which would ultimately lead to the development of an e-learning system. This system would be turned over to the University free of charge upon completion of the research. The proposal was Dead on Arrival (DoA) when it hit the office of one of the vice presidents (who is no longer within the employ of the University). I was told that the University was not ready for such an endeavor. SERIOUSLY? Are we not in the 21st Century? But yet, the University relies on an online  program that is done in Collaboration with an institution in India. So, are we leading or following?

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that innovation is a concept which keeps driving businesses to find ways of doing things differently than how they were done before. Without innovation, organizations become stationary thereby losing their competiveness or competive advantage. New strategies, ideas, products, services, concepts, and methods must be incorporated more consistently if an organization wants to keep competitive and up to date in the market.

For example, despite all of the recent promotions, organizational changes, etc, Novafone continues to remain the number three operator in the Liberian telecom market. On the other hand, even though Lonestar boasts of a larger number of subscribers, Cellcom “SEEMS” to be first to market when it comes to new products and services, thus giving it competitive advantage. So what makes Cellcom and Lonestar successful leaders in the Liberian telecom market? The answer is INNOVATION. Innovation forces competition which is good for the ordinary citizen, because it forces companies to emerge with better, if not the best, quality of products and services and sell them at lower prices.

We need to develop a growing appetite for innovation in order to survive and thrive in a fast-paced and unpredictable time in which we live. In Liberia, some leaders question innovation when it is proffered, forgetting to know that innovation is actually what brings development. I think it is time our leaders strive to be open to new and brilliant ideas that can lead to robust business models, bringing a unique customer/citizen experience instead of turning down proposals and saying “we are not ready for that yet.”

People and things are changing rapidly, hence, we need to respond to those changes by being innovative. Currently, for example, Liberians are getting addicted to new technologies, connectivity and speed. The ongoing expansion of the mobile ecosystem, coupled with demand for high-bandwidth applications and services such as video (sports), will continue to place pressure on the industry to increase the availability and quality of broadband connectivity. Innovation is what actually facilitates the response to the changes that are occurring. Now, if the innovative “practices” that are occurring among our mobile operators parallel those in other sectors, we will have a lot of factories. With factories or a strong manufacturing ecosystem, a lot of Liberians could be employed.

We need to encourage, espouse and support innovation whenever it is suggested. We have to embrace innovation and not be intimidated by it simply because it takes us out of our comfort zones. Thinking out of the box is not such a bad thing, after all, a person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing. Success therefore comes only when we are bold enough to take risks and that’s what innovation is all about; risks. The fear of new ideas is the fear of progress. The fear of progress means prolonged underdevelopment. So, I ask the question again: Can we be an innovation-driven nation? I believe we can!

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