NSF Innovation Survey

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has just released its first ever Business R&D and Innovation Survey (BRDIS).  Developed jointly with the U.S. Census Bureau, it reveals that companies located in the U.S. spent $330 billion on R&D in 2008, with $234 billion of that used for research in facilities located in the U.S.

NSF’s previous R&D instrument, carried out every year since 1953, was called the Survey of Industrial Research and Development. But research is conducted differently today than it was 50 years ago, and back in 2004 the National Academies’ Committee on National Statistics recommended that NSF develop an updated version. New features surveyed include:

  • worldwide R&D expenses
  • R&D employee headcount by occupation category
  • R&D expenses by detailed business segments
  • share of R&D devoted to new business areas and new science or technology activities

Companies with R&D reported a high ratio of domestic U.S. sales to worldwide sales: well over 60 percent.

The data were gathered from a representative sample of 40,000 U.S. businesses (including U.S. owned and also U.S. affiliates of companies owned outside the U.S.).

American Innovation: In Decline?

If you’ve been in a newstand this month, you’ve probably seen the cover of Newsweek magazine shouting out its cover theme: “The Decline of American Innovation.” It turns out that the article is actually about how Americans are worried about potential decline, not about any actual documented decline. And Americans are worried, according to the polls cited in this article: 61% of Americans think the recession has lowered the country’s ability to innovate. Only 41% think that American is staying ahead of China when it comes to innovation. Only 55% of Americans think America is staying ahead of India, only 32% think we’re staying ahead of Japan.

But what’s fascinating about the survey is that Newsweek also interviewed people in China about our two country’s relative innovation potential. And the Americans were consistently more negative about American innovation than the Chinese were. Take a look at these differences:

Is the U.S. staying ahead of China on innovation?

U.S. percentage yes: 41%
Chinese percentage yes: 81%

Is the U.S. staying ahead of India?

U.S. percentage yes: 55%
Chinese percentage yes: 87%

This Fall, I’m a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge. From Europe, the U.S. looks like an innovation powerhouse and it seems to be unstoppable. I just read a magazine here where designers and thought leaders were asked “What should we nickname the decade of the ’00s?” and over half of them referred to the iPhone or to Apple. Perhaps there’s something about the American mindset that leads us to think we’re less successful than we seem to others?

I’m spending my time at Cambridge in the Faculty of Education, studying creative teaching and learning, so I was also interested to see that the questionnaire asked why Americans are falling behind in innovation. 42% said the main reason was “Our schools are lagging in math and science education.” So how do the interview respondents think schools should change to give students creative skills?

Again, the Americans and Chinese gave radically different answers:

Increase math and computer science skills :

U.S. respondents: 52%
Chinese respondents: 9%

Teach students creative approaches to problem solving :

U.S. respondents: 18%
Chinese respondents: 45%

These last two are the most intriguing findings of the entire survey. Do Americans really think that knowing more math will make children more creative? I think the Chinese are ahead of us on this one.

How Long Will It Take?

I’ve been cleaning out my file cabinets to get ready for an upcoming move to a new building.  Buried in a long-forgotten file folder, I found a 1999 “Innovation Survey” by Price Waterhouse Coopers.  Many readers of my blog already know that just about every consulting firm now publishes an annual innovation survey; the best known are Boston Consulting Group (published in connection with Business Week magazine) and Booz Allen Hamilton (published in their own magazine, Strategy+Business).  The amazing thing about the 1999 PWC report is that it is right on the money.  Remember my blog posting from last week, about Gary Hamel’s “Inventing the Future of Innovation” conference?  Just about every recommendation that we came up with was already in this 1999 report.  Here’s a sampling:

* The critical role of knowledge management in gathering, discussing, and disseminating new ideas from both inside and outside the firm

* Innovation can’t be limited to a separate group, like an R&D lab; it has to be everyone’s responsibility and be built into everyday ways of working

* Diverse teams generate better ideas

* The most critical element of an innovative culture is trust between people that will enable them to share ideas freely

* Survey respondents fall into two management styles: managed (planned, systemic) and open (radical, discontinous initiatives that have no obvious connection with past successes; balancing the consensual and the anarchic).  Of the top 20% of performers in their survey, 75% displayed the open style; of the top 5%, all displayed the open style.

If you’ve read my book GROUP GENIUS, you know that I wasn’t surprised by any of this.  But what is surprising is that this knowledge has been around for so long, for at least ten years, and the majority of companies still aren’t paying attention.  If we all get together in ten more years for another “future of management” conference, it would be pretty depressing if nothing in the corporate world has changed.

Expert consultants to the report included: Mark Brown and Dominic Swords of Henley Management College; Scott Isaksen, Brian Dorval, and Ken Lauer of the Creative Problem Solving Group at Buffalo; Gerard Puccio of the Center for Studies in Creativity; and Chris Dewberry of Birkbeck College.  The report originated in the U.K. and has a distinctly U.K. flavor (or “flavour”?) but the findings are valid in every region.