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Powering the future with knowledge engineering

To power the future, companies must make technology innovation an integral part of their business success, explains Dr. Alejandro Sanz, Head of Group Technology Intelligence at SKF.

Sustaining industrial leadership after more than a century of operation is a welcome challenge to SKF. Embedding knowledge engineering in services and products requires a continuous renewal of your own competences, as well as challenging yourself to go beyond the point where others stop. The question is, how do you generate, deliver and capture value based on the opportunities offered by new developments in technology?

Our business objective is to bring new knowledge and innovative value propositions to generate critical improvements in reliability and productivity for all our customers. To develop new advanced systems, solutions and service, the innovation cycle has to be continuous and loop endlessly. This can be a difficult task to achieve, but as we hope to show using our experiences at SKF, it can be integrated within existing processes to create real and sustainable business benefits.

The outside-in approach
Several factors should determine the innovation policy and management that a company implements. These include assessments on the economic effectiveness of technology investments, internal attitudes to innovation, legislation frameworks and the timing and future role of technology in industrial performance. Inevitably, these analyses are to a certain extent based on estimates of future behaviour, which gives rise to uncertainty and an associated level of risk. 

At SKF, we developed the Strategic Innovation Analysis (SIA), which anticipates new market or service trends as well the expectations of the market to ensure that the company is consistently delivering value. We have recognised that strategic decisions on innovation cannot be undertaken without an intimate understanding of the relationship between the company’s internal set-up (in regards to innovation, markets, managerial attitudes, technological and human resources, capital structure, etc.) and the opportunity space created in (or imposed by) the market. 

The company must anticipate, assimilate and integrate market trends and expectations. The external context of forces that a company has to understand includes market needs, legal & economic frameworks, competitive benchmarking, technological opportunities, and new business opportunities. 

The inside-out approach
By comparison, the inside-out approach to innovation involves several levels of analysis, creativity and co-operation. However, the common theme that is at the heart of this approach is to think globally, but act locally.

Another important aspect of internal analysis is a screening and scrutiny of internal potential in terms of technology and resources. It’s important to allow a degree of flexibility in the process, to clear a path internally for any possibilities that might arise. 

Using SKF as an example, innovation is considered one of the strategic pillars for the future growth of our entire business. Each of our business areas has been assigned a challenge: to create completely new and game changing offers to demonstrate future value-based leadership. To reach the growth targets that our business strategy demands, there is a need to identify and integrate internal resources while providing visible support from management to the initiatives. 

As part of this inside-out approach, we launched several activities with the aim to overcome the fact that in large organisations, talented people can be located anywhere and everywhere, however they are often not connected with each other and usually lack the right network to support this. 

The recipe and rules for successful innovation
In our experience, having a process that is rigorous yet flexible and interactive is key to encouraging creativity and innovation. During the development of mid-long term technology projects, it is important not to lose contact with market expectations and evolutions, particularly as new opportunities may often be uncovered during the length of such a project. 

The future positioning of the company is put into execution by coordinating two types of innovation management: Strategic Innovation Management (SIM) and Continuous Innovation Management (CIM).

CIM integrates knowledge solutions from within SKF into tools, systems and service; SIM uses portfolio sources (R&D, alliances, joint ventures, partnerships) to ensure a constant renewal of the value proposition of the solution being developed. The two approaches integrate competences and knowledge from different domains to develop successful solutions. We measure our results against market and customer expectations. 

One key thing that we have learned is that leaders in innovation defy convention to explore new areas. Innovation and creativity efforts must be persistent and disciplined to bring the benefits of ideas to markets in a consistent way.

However, real success comes from taking into account the constraints and goals of others and integrating them with your own with one single purpose in mind: to power the future.

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