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The power to drive innovation

Dr Mohammed Dulaimi of British University in Dubai looks at challenges that need to be overcome to ensure successful innovation.

COMMENT, Business

The famous Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, knew exactly how to cheer up Amyitis, his homesick wife - by providing her with an environment similar to her home country, Persia.

The project manager, designer and constructor may have considered explaining to the King that existing knowledge, methods, tools and techniques would not enable them achieve this objective. If they did, however, they would have lost more than just the job. Therefore, they needed radical innovation. I am sure Nebuchadnezzar did not have a clue as to how this could be done; however, the customer is king, literally in this case. The client (the King) did not issue any specifications or a detailed brief to describe how this environment of gardens and waterfalls, as can be found in the Queen's homeland, could be replicated in the desert of Babylon. This challenge (opportunity) enabled the project team to design and build a world wonder - the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

This very early example demonstrates how the client/customer can provide the driving force for innovation. This is contradicted today by the passive attitude of many of the industry's clients and stakeholders, highlighted in a recent conversation I had with one of the leading foreign contractors here in the UAE. A senior manager referred to their role by suggesting ‘we implement what the client wants us to do'. Such an attitude gives greater credibility to my hypothesis that the client should provide the driving force for increasing the level of innovation that is critical to the development of the construction industry.

Clients need to be motivated to use their power on their projects to generate the urgency for innovation. They should have a clear strategic framework of how to use such power to affect successful innovation. Although today we have many forward looking and innovative construction firms, still the industry is accused of lagging behind other sectors of the economy. The industry is seen, sometimes, to shy away from venturing into new waters. I would argue that it is the unwillingness and reluctance of a significant element of industry to get close to their customers that have significantly stifled opportunities to innovate. Being close to customers should enable the industry to better understand their customers' business needs and aspirations that would allow the industry to enhance the value of their offerings.

The concept of value innovation, while perceived to be new, has been in practice for quite sometime. The creation of new markets, sometimes referred to as Blue Ocean, rather than competing in existing ones, has propelled many companies to success. An example of a Blue Ocean company is Nakheel, who pioneered the idea of ‘building over water'. This move, prompted by the vision of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, has allowed Nakheel to create a new market where none of its competitors can compete. No other house builder can claim that they can build a similar house that can give the customer similar value. Nakheel recognised the leap in value they have created in this innovation and has moved very fast to create more of the same product by constructing two more Palms in addition to the first one, Jumeirah. Before its competitors, nationally and in the region, managed to copy its idea, Nakheel pushed forward with the ‘World' and then the ‘Waterfront'. Therefore, Nakheel managed to create a significant gap between itself and its competitors by creating new products based on the main innovation. However, such companies should recognise that its success depends on its ability to create continuous products and services that can add value to its customers. Therefore, in this article we need to briefly outline how clients can affect successful innovation in their projects.

Successful innovation in construction

The realisation of successful innovation should address two main challenges: definition and integration. And the client should have the power to overcome both hurdles.

Definition of innovation is critical to its success. You may be surprised that the burden of definition is on the professionals rather than the client. All aspects of the new idea should provide value to the client, otherwise it is waste. It is not surprising to see great interest in the concept of ‘customer oriented organisation'. Blue Ocean organisations should not be content with the creation of a climate of innovation without a clear vision of what would ensure the success of such innovation. Such an organisation should embrace a customer-orientated culture, enabling it to identify all forces that may impact the effective identification and fulfilment of its customer needs and expectations.

Integration of the supply chain has been for quite some time the construction industry's most difficult goal to achieve. Integration is essential to the realisation of successful innovation. The realisation of this new idea requires the integration of a complex supply chain that needs to be fully committed to providing their best ideas and effort in order to realise the supply chain's full potential. I would argue that we have yet to explore the full potential of organisational and contractual incentives to align the motivation of the different organisations in the construction project value chain. If clients understand such incentives and are able to use them effectively they will be able motivate the supply chain to commit and support the process of innovation.

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