Jan
15

The Forest Bioproducts and Paper Industries: The Need to Conquer Innovation Fatigue

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The North American paper industry suffers from a largely undeserved image problem. Many view it as an antiquated smokestack industry, when it has been a leader in exciting areas in technology and business practice. Fans of biofuels and green energy, for example, should know about the pioneeing efforts from the forest bioproducts industries, including many paper companies. “Green energy” from forest biomass has been the basis for economic success in pulp production for decades. A kraft mill burning black liquor is a stellar example of recovering useful energy from the byproducts of a renewable resource, coupled with smart recycling and regeneration of chemicals.

The industry has also been an important part of advances in practical aspects of RFID technology, in supply chain management, in green labeling and packaging, and in many other area. In nanotechnology, papermakers have actually been dealing with nanoparticles and complex colloids for decades, producing increasingly useful and practical products built with nanotechnology employed at a massive scale. In plant genetics, crop management, and stewardship over bio-resources, the forest products industry have demonstrated world-class capabilities and results. Industry stewardship has led to more trees and forest lands in the United States than we had a century ago. Advances in plant management have led to almost miraculous results such as the ability of carefully managed plantations of eucalyptus trees in Brazil to yield trees that can be harvested after just five years – and perhaps even less in the near future.

But with the proud history of innovation and leadership that I see in the forest products industry, it pains me to see how little recognition it received, and how little sense of that tradition seems to be alive in the industry today. On too many counts, the industry appears to be seized with innovation fatigue.

In the new book from John Wiley and Sons, Conquering Innovation Fatigue by Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins, and Mukund Karanjikar, we identify sources of innovation fatigue factors in three primary areas: the behavior of individuals including innovators themselves and the people around them (“people fatigue”), organizational-level flaws such as flaws in vision and decision making (“organizational fatigue”), and external factors such as challenges in IP law, burdensome regulations, tax policies, and trade policies. It is easy to point fingers at management and criticize their lack of courage or willingness to invest, but we must recognize that the forest products industry have faced unusually painful burdens due to external factors which have only strengthened systematic incentives to cut back on innovation and focus on cost-cutting.

There is a need for policy makers to consider the “voice of the innovator” and the unintended harmful impact that some laws and policies can have on long-term innovation. Policies are needed that put manufacturing industry on a more equal footing relative to global competitors who are generally free of the numerous burdens North American industry faces. Policies are needed that reduce the many disincentives corporations may face to be innovative and more visionary here on North American soil.

Meanwhile, there are other things that North American industry can do. Innovation, whether in business models, products, or processes, must be viewed not as an expense to avoid, but as a necessity to survive. The key may not be to conduct detailed research related to the commodities now being produced, but to boldly explore adjacencies and new product spaces as MeadWestvaco did. We see some of this in the biofuels area, such as creative approaches to integrated biorefineries using technologies suited for local biomass and other local resources and markets. We see this in many of the packaging innovations created by innovators in paper-related companies. We see this in the example of companies like Kimberly-Clark that transformed themselves from commodity makers to producers of world-class high-value consumer products rich with innovation and intellectual property.

The most exciting innovations of the future will come at the intersection of disciplines. Building the right relationships and networks across companies, innovators, and institutions will be needed to be aware of the possibilities and to seize them. The technologies we are using today and the know-how we have developed in the forest products industries may be the foundation for rich innovations in nanotechnology, health care, electronics, and various emerging fields, if only we have the courage to explore wisely, with talented minds empowered and motivated to find the paths forward, unhindered by the chains of innovation fatigue.

This post is related to a longer article written for Tappi360 magazine, Dec. 2009.

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InnovationFatigue.com is the official blog for the new book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue. Here we provide supplementary innovation, news, tips, updates, and, when needed, a correction or two, to keep those who are using the big on the inside edge for innovation success.