Tuesday, June 28, 2011

When Innovation Meets Red-Tape

The Hindu reports that the National Innovation Council has appointed an Israeli consulting firm, Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), to help create an "innovation road-map" for India, and to bring about a "culture of innovation" in the country.

The first thought that crossed my mind?  "Oh no! not again!". Yet another case of a street-smart Israeli company preparing the ground to sucker a few millions from Indian bureaucrats. Last time I saw this was in the early 1990's when a company called Netafim used Japanese government grant-aid funds to sell its drip-irrigation system to the Chandrababu Naidu government in Andhra Pradesh. It had been an impressive display of naivete, short-sightedness and lack of self-confidence by government officials, at the cost of Indian firms like Jain Irrigation Systems.

This news-item quotes a SIT Director - "In India there are 80 innovation centers but they don't have a good success rate.". This was not merely a polite understatement but a clear build up towards a very effective sales pitch. Why do Indian R&D centers have such a poor record in producing internationally competitive goods? Why is Israel so different?

Perhaps a part of the answer lies in the unique socio-economic environment that seems to be typical of smaller countries that continuously struggle to survive in a tough environment. Like Israel, countries like Japan, Singapore, Finland and Switzerland, depend heavily on international trade. But unlike the others, Israel has effectively leveraged military discipline & bonding into a potent economic tool.

Much has been written in recent years about the secretive dynamos that power the Israeli innovation-machine. Stacy Perman (2010) writes about the military unit-8200 whose alumni have created numerous ground-breaking innovations in the IT business. Dan Breznitz (2007) has written about state-led, rapid-innovation based industrial development in Israel.

SIT's own team is a fine example of the kind of human resources you need in your team before you even start talking about innovation. It states:
Helping organizations and individuals to innovate is not something they teach you in university. Which is why our SIT team members' backgrounds, interests, and skills are so diverse, ranging from electrical, mechanical, and food engineering to business, psychology, cultural studies, and music. Not to mention our collective expertise in Greco-Roman wrestling, guided imagery, shiatsu, backwards speaking and other useful skills.
It is a celebration of diversity way beyond the grimy corridors inhabited by government officials in India. The innovators thrive on thinking out of the box while most of our bureaucrats are incapable of thinking without one.

How on earth will these two worlds meet? How will the bureaucrats sitting in the Planning Commission communicate the pearls of wisdom they receive from SIT to the small & medium enterprises that actually need - but cannot afford - such services? Will the presence of the venerable Mr. Sam Pitroda make a difference to the effectiveness of NIC?

Like Netafim, I can already hear SIT laughing all the way to the bank...  :(

  • Wadke, Rahul (2011): 'INDIA NEEDS TO NURTURE A CULTURE OF INNOVATION', The Hindu BusinessLine, 28 June 2011
  • Kerbs, Gill (2007): Technology - The Unit, Forbes.com, 2 Aug 2007. URL - http://www.forbes.com/2007/02/07/israel-military-unit-ventures-biz-cx_gk_0208israel.html
  • McElroy, Damien (2010): Israel's unit 8200: cyber warfare, The Telegraph UK. URL - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/israel/8034882/Israels-unit-8200-cyber-warfare.html
  • National Innovation Council, India. URL - http://www.innovationcouncil.gov.in/aboutus/aboutnic.php
  • Perman, Stacy (2010): Spies Inc.: Business Innovation from Israel's Masters of Espionage, Kindle eBook
  • Breznitz, Dan (2007): Innovation and the State - Political Choices and Strategies for Growth in Israel, Taiwan and Ireland, Kindle eBook

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