You want to succeed? Time to invest in R&D

Think of research and development as the science of curiosity

The Save Our Science campaign started by HW is more important and has greater implications than its name connotes. It's all about science. But, more than that, it is about creating an environment for and predisposition to R&D — that spirit of discovery — that separates the organisations that survive (or not) from those that thrive.

And if ever there was a time that you wanted to figure out what's new, it's now. Not just because of the current economic cycle. It's because business — public and private sectors — is moving so fast that the only way you can be on top of your game is to be fully vested in an R&D culture. Even better, if you do so, you will be beyond the top of your game. You can set the rules.

A broader perspective

There is a tendency among those not in the sciences to think that they have no need for or contribution to R&D. Wrong.

Think about it. R&D stands for research and development. What organisation — whether growers, landscapers, parks departments or garden retail centres — wouldn't want to be figuring out what the newest, best thinking is from within and outside their organisation? What enterprise wouldn't want to be committed to developing itself to suit its present and future?

R&D is as much about the science of curiosity as it is about the technical sciences. It's a willingness to challenge your thinking and the understanding that, actually, you don't have a choice. Someone else is just waiting to come in and take your market.

Best-of-breed organisations aren't sitting on their hands. They're figuring out how other organisations are improving their games. Then, the smartest of the smart take that learning and figure out how it might (or might not) apply to their enterprise.

Let's take a simple, non-scientific example: you're a garden retail organisation. You sell things. From plants and flowers to compost and pet supplies, you've got it covered. You have a layout that leads people from area to area. You have signage that points the way. You even have a cafe that gives people a place to rest their weary feet.

Good for you.

Now go to Asda. Then Waitrose. Take a look at what Sainsbury's and Selfridges are doing. Then visit Topshop. Check out the Apple Store and Uniqlo. See how McDonald's works and visit a KFC. If you're in the South East, pop into one of the Bill's Produce Stores. Call BT with a question. Then call your gas and electricity providers.

There are two main questions you ask yourself as you visit these providers:

1. What are those who are spending time and money on improving, redesigning and recalibrating their businesses doing?

2. How can you take what they've invested in and apply it to your organisation?

These guys are spending big bucks on figuring out what customers want and how to create the highest return on investment for every centimetre of space. Sure, it gets reported as "sales per square metre", but it is down to the fractions. The more you sweat the product and flow details — as well as the customer service that supports each entity - the more you can work with your management team to adjust what you're doing to what has been proven successful already.

Doing the rounds among your competitors is fine — but so what? What you want is new thinking. Because, no matter how successful you might be now, someone has figured out a better way of doing it.

The one thing you never want your customers to think is: "Hmm, at [fill in the blank] I can always find/they make it so much easier/it's more fun... " Because their next sentence will be: "Let's go there."

By ensuring that you know what the best of breed are doing elsewhere, you can continue to build the "wow" factor for your customers. It's just another form of R&D.

Growers and the manufacturing model

It may look like green shoots and tractors, but we all know what growing really is. It's a manufacturing process.

For growers, access to others' R&D is simple. There's so much being done across industries to improve the manufacturing process that the biggest problem for you will be to figure out where to stop.

Every form of assembly-line technology must be reviewed. From automobile plants and engine factories to clean rooms in semi-conductor manufacturers, you need to see the mechanics and robotics that are incorporated from gross to fine manufacturing.

Go on "executive missions" to plants and factories in country and out. Take the time to do the research. Read everything you can - from Harvard Business Review and Wired to Forbes, Fortune and Popular Mechanics.

Meet with your senior-level customer and supplier counterparts — not a purchasing manager or sales rep — to discuss supply chain and the direction the new technologies are going. That's important — you need to keep things smooth to make money.

Treat yourself as the executive you are and put the strategy of your manufacturing process to the forefront of your R&D effort.

Do not forget the public sector

Excuse me, parks departments. You don't get out of this so easily.

Too often, public-sector entities think that they can't have the same impact as companies that do R&D for profit-making motives. Wrong. In the public sector, think mergers and acquisitions (M&A) — then you'll get where you need to go.

Forget what the politicians are saying about "redirecting" public funds but not cutting the budget. The reality is budgets are going to be cut. If you're smart, you'll turn this into the opportunity of a lifetime.

Take a look at the easy pickings in your larger organisation — whether it's local or national. Which departments or services would benefit from being merged into your department? Where are the cross-over opportunities — in skills or service provision — that could most easily and cost-effectively be incorporated into your organisation?

Then start studying how the big boys do M&A. It's as much art as it is science. You make the compelling case, do your due diligence and then, upon takeover, work the integration.

Be an empire builder. It will save money and jobs while at the same time ensuring that the citizenry has the benefit of your product: green space in this restless world.

But what about the sciences and R&D?

Now you're talking.

The wonderful thing about science at the core of R&D is that it doesn't just create opportunities. It creates whole new industries.

Everyone agrees that California has become a major global player in the wine market. But how did it get there? Ask the original wineries and you'll quickly hear about the contribution that the University of California (UC) Davis made to oenology. Without the research done in the labs and fields of that university, the industry wouldn't exist.

From bringing in the best vines to suit the soil to the development of those vines and the manufacturing processes that lead to the best vintages, UC Davis was on the case. And it still is. University research is a core component not only of the development of an industry, but of its future. Because, when adequately funded and supported by both government and industry, it ensures that the best, most curious minds are devoted to the questions of today and tomorrow.

Even if you're a Monsanto or a Scotts, you can't achieve all you want from within. You don't have the brain power. Nor do you have the "out of the box" thinking that those outside your industry and labs can provide.

That comes from the universities. You want young, agile minds that see no reason for barriers in their thinking. Sure, science is rigorous, but curiosity is limitless. Moreover, best-of-breed universities worldwide have figured out how to take what's going on in the labs and, through internal incubators, build businesses. This requires the new, but not uncommon, liaising between science departments and business schools.

From chemistry and biology to engineering and computer science, it is the combination of thinking that takes the projects and products of one entity and turns them into a money-making opportunity for everyone involved - ncluding the universities.

But that takes industry coordination with the universities. Then, you take that co-operative and bring it to the Government. Because all the Government wants is jobs. Now and in the future. For them it's very simple. Jobs equal tax dollars. Businesses, local and global, lead to reduced deficits, surpluses and greater investment in the country.

It's also going to be a real ego-boost for any government to say that it was one of the reasons that global starvation has been put to an end. Oh yes, and that, in the process, the food security of the UK is in good shape.

Solving the funding dilemma

But if it's going to happen, it needs to happen now. Save Our Science, in the scheme of things, isn't asking the Government for much — just some money to match levy funds.

The difference it will make, however, to the growers and the consumers is immense. The industry has problems that need to be addressed. Now. Within a political climate that is at best difficult and at worst sometimes seemingly designed to put you out of business, you need to make the case in a way they will understand.

Your industry bodies need to talk together. Edibles and ornamentals, in this case, are the same: what affects one impacts the other. Whether it is soil erosion and water drainage or EU regulations on pesticides, you're all fighting the same battle.

However, the Government will continue to win (which is actually a big loss) if you continue to act as micro-organisations. You are the stewards for over 80 per cent of the land mass of the country. That's not a whisper, it's a scream they cannot avoid or ignore.

So, whether it's petunias or potatoes that are under your management, start talking together. Even better, do the talking with the support organisations - from agricultural societies to think-tanks and quangos - to get them in the game. Use Save Our Science as a catalyst. Put pressure on your MPs.

R&D is not a luxury. It's survival.

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