Alfons Cornella, founder of the Institute of Next and the EDGERS project, at the Innovators Club of Girbau LAB

We close the month of June with a new session of the Innovators’ Club featuring Alfons Cornella as the speaker. Founder of the Institute of Next and the EDGERS project, with a long and recognized career in innovation, Alfons invites attendees to explore the boundaries of the organization through a culture of curiosity and the attitude of asking ourselves questions.

We tend to think of curiosity as something quite straightforward and even banal, but it is the fundamental ancestor of critical human activities such as creativity and innovation. There is a growing interest in curiosity, be it from an individual or corporate perspective. We need to understand what curiosity is as well as how to make it work for our personal and organizational goals. During the talk we address some of these issues in order to get a better understanding of curiosity as a competitive advantage for businesses.

Alfons Cornella has published around 40 books on business, technology, and innovation, as well as many short articles on how technologies can transform companies. He is a consultant to some of Spain’s largest companies and has been involved to innovation for more than 30 years.

What are the main challenges in business environments?

It is increasingly difficult to talk about businesses in general. Each business, with its own names and identities, is a universe. Each has its own problems and opportunities. But I think that many of them have a growing need to change what we call the “business operating system.” The environment is more complex, demanding, and changing, and this requires being very good in four directions.

First, having the right mechanisms to determine what customers need/demand; this means we need to capture real-time data through “sensors” to respond quickly. Second, understanding technology not just as a mere “tool” but as a “motor” of transformation; they must be very attentive to emerging technologies that have the power to radically change the business. Third, empowering teams to give them more capacity to respond more autonomously to the customer, without waiting for instructions; the “distance” between the teams’ generating solutions and the customers must be zero. And fourth, working in the form of an ecosystem, identifying other organizations with which they can combine to generate new value that none of them can generate alone; no company is intelligent enough to provide customers with the increasingly sophisticated solutions they will demand.

Where are we now in terms of innovation in the industrial sector?

Again, it depends on which company we are talking about. In the industrial world, there are extraordinarily advanced companies that are redefining what we understand by “manufacturing,” and companies that are in the final phase of a production model that can no longer be competitive. We see this, for example, in Germanic countries, with a long tradition of industrial companies, which in the last ten years have seen how they can no longer compete, neither in prices nor in quality, with products manufactured in Asia, and have been forced (and I think they have been lucky in this…) to generate much more sophisticated and, generally, more “customized” product lines for customers.

Moreover, the “distance” between science and technology is getting shorter (ideas generated in laboratories take less time to reach the market as technology), as we see, for example, in the field of materials. Additionally, the digitalization of processes, thanks to advanced mechanisms such as “digital twins,” allows simulations of process changes, in the search for ever greater efficiency, impacting productivity growth, enabling a “responsive” adaptation to customer needs. Finally, we find high-quality innovation in exploring subscription models in the industry, responding to the need for companies to move from capex (capital expenditure) models to systematically adopting opex (operating expense) models. It is in the area of business models, that is, in how results are generated in the company, where, in my opinion, we will see more innovation in the coming years. Overall, the future of the industry will result from how we combine the possibilities of technology with our business imagination.

Are we asking ourselves enough questions? The right ones?

In general, no. We ask ourselves the typical questions of an end of an era, about how to keep doing what we were doing, and we do not respond to the uncertainty of not mastering the technologies, models, and forms of relationships between organizations that are emerging and are quite different from those we knew until now. We do not ask the questions that “open” new scenarios of possibilities. We call this vision of discovering what the future opens up to us, “horizons of opportunities.”

It is very surprising to see companies that do not open their vision to the future of their business at all, as if they were convinced that what they do will always be viable and that no one will take them out of the business. But I think that in the coming years we will see more and more seemingly invincible companies disappear in the face of radically different proposals, in how they do it and in what they do.

Curiosity as a competitive advantage, by Alfons Cornella

© Gisela Jané

Output or outcome?

This is a fundamental question. Organizational models must move from the “command and control” scheme (I say what needs to be done, and I get reports on whether it has been done or not) to “shared principles” (do it as you want but ensuring that doing so guarantees that customer needs are met). In this change, what matters are not the “outputs” (how much we produce) but the “outcomes” (if we have truly met the customer’s need). This is not just a mere change of terms; it is a substantial change in how work is done.

If the company is closer to the customer (the “zero distance” we mentioned before), it better understands what concerns them, what they need, and to satisfy them, it must be able to dynamically adapt to their circumstances, which is very different from proposing a standard product/service to meet sales objectives. Companies with very advanced organizational models, such as the Chinese company Haier (world leader in the appliance sector), operate from this conviction that the real boss is the customer and that if the customer is not satisfied, the entire previous production chain has failed (in fact, they go even further: it is the customer who pays the salaries, and if the customer has not received what they needed, no one should get paid…).

Imagine a future scenario in industrial laundry … what could it be?

I do not know the sector well enough to have an opinion worth sharing. But, from ignorance, there are future scenarios now difficult to imagine, such as one where clothes do not need to be washed, or another where the water used in the process is recovered and reused indefinitely. In fact, there are sectors I know better, such as the food sector, where water reprocessing is one of the fundamental components of future industrial strategies. Although some think that the future is about unlimited (or “abundant”) resources, I believe we will have to be increasingly prudent in the use of materials and energy, and that doing more with less will be the main operating norm for many companies.

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