sirius_logo_RVB [su_pullquote align=”right”]By Victor DOS SANTOS PAULINO  and Najoua TAHRI[/su_pullquote]
Innovation as the key driver of economic growth is nothing new. However, France, with the rest of Europe, continues to face significant challenges in stimulating innovation in its economy and maintaining its competitive edge.

In a study investigating what discourages French firms from innovating, we find that the biggest barriers to innovation are financial or market-related, and not technological. Financial constraints, lack of competent personnel and a perceived pointlessness of innovating are some of the main culprits behind this lag in innovation. Surprisingly, very few firms cited technological barriers, and similar results have been observed in other parts of the world.

The right skill-mix

Taking a closer look, we observe that many of the obstacles can be traced back to a shortage of managers with the relevant skill set. Various innovation studies point out that innovation success requires the effective combination of different expertise, both technical and commercial. However, managers with both attributes are rare, especially in France. And the absence of versatile managers can result in conflicting viewpoints between technical managers who tend to be preoccupied with technological performances and commercial managers who tend to be focused on market concerns. This in turn can lead to a communication breakdown and cooperation failure, impeding the innovation process.

Add to this, the prevalent culture of “technology push” innovation in France, where by innovation processes are spearheaded by R&D in new technologies but are plagued by a poor understanding of the market. This not only reinforces market barriers to innovation but also leads to financial constraints. Substantial resources end up being pumped into and prolonging the R&D phase, blurring the distinction between inventing something, innovation and achieving innovation success. The development of the Concorde is a good illustration of this. To date there are ongoing debates on whether the supersonic airliner was an innovation success or not. For some, the technological breakthroughs overshadow the fact that only 14 units were sold to two clients. In short, firms are discouraged from innovating because innovation, from their perspective, necessitates considerable resources to cover the excessive costs of invention.

Impact of government support

In Europe and notably in France, public authorities are wrapped up with technological progress leaving little room for commercial expertise in the innovation process. Inventions and discontinuous technologies are favored, often out of sync with market dynamics, and very costly. Too often public funding programs, for instance in the aerospace sector, push firms to undertake projects that are not always economically viable. Thus, firms tend to orientate their strategies on technological advances, to the detriment of market objectives, essential for anticipating returns on investment.

Contextual factors

Breaking down the obstacles by industry, the aerospace industry faces the highest obstacles, followed by the manufacturing and service industries. This is expected as aerospace companies are more likely to be innovative, face high productions costs and heavily rely on public investment. In contrast, firms in the service industry experience the fewest obstacles. The development of new-to-world products is rare in the service industry, where the intangibility of products allows for easy imitation by rival firms and thus raises a serious problem in convincing investors to fund new ventures. Service orientated firms therefore tend to adopt a market pull strategy with focus on continuous innovations, marginally enhancing or upgrading the service offering, and at a much lower cost. It is therefore not surprising that firms in this sector face the lowest financial barriers to innovation.

Overcoming barriers to innovation

As a starting point, firms should accommodate market research in their innovation processes. This is easier said than done as technical managers sometimes first need to move away from the idea that if you don’t know how to make a product, you won’t know how to sell it. Technical managers need to recognize the importance of bringing in the market perspective on board the innovation process. To combat the shortage of managers with both technical and business skills, firms could offer on-the-job training to develop deficient competencies (e.g. granting MBA opportunities to technical managers). Moreover, to tackle the root of the problem, higher learning institutions offering scientific degrees should integrate a strong element of social sciences in their programs. This would not only ensure a commercial dimension in the innovation process but may also go a long way to solving communication issues between technical and commercial teams, and add legitimacy to marketing insights.

However, this is not a substitute for involving commercial managers directly in the innovation process. Ideally, firms should go a step further and create a business intelligence unit to provide information on the market, to work side by side and complement the work of the technological team. The weight accorded to commercial competencies in the innovation process will vary according to the characteristics of the activity sector.

A fundamental change will also have to come from the public authorities who need to redirect their funding to support successful innovations rather than novel technologies, and allow firms to focus on continuous innovation – the natural course for most. By prioritizing downstream innovation processes, such as innovation commercialization, firms will face lower market barriers and innovation costs. To this end, public authorities need to make more room for firms in defining the strategic orientation of public support policies.
Innovation is a powerful means by which to ensure long-term survival. Without innovation, it is extremely difficult to adapt to a changing environment. Although new product failure is high, innovation without any failure is impossible. In a nutshell, successful innovation requires not only a change in the mindset and innovation culture of firms but also shifts in the public institutional framework to be more in favor of continuous innovation. Firms, government agencies, higher education institutions all have a role to play in overcoming barriers to innovation and creating an enabling environment for innovation.

This article is based on the study entitled, “Les obstacles à l’innovation en France : analyse et recommandations ”, co-authored by Victor Dos Santos Paulino and Najoua Tahri, published in Management & Avenir, 2014/3, no. 69, p. 70 – 88, available here

[su_spoiler title=”Méthodologie”]The study, conducted in 2014, is based on the results from the 4th Community Innovation Survey (CIS 4) carried out in France between 2002 and 2004 and published by Eurostat. 175,533 firms in France participated in the survey, indicating if they have experienced any of 11 obstacles to innovation. For the purposes of our study, we then divided the obstacles into four categories: knowledge, market, financial and external obstacles, and analyzed the obstacles by nature of the firm and by sector (manufacturing, services and aerospace, the latter being a key industry in France). [/su_spoiler]

Par Pierre André Buigues

France’s has had a foreign trade deficit since 2003 and the country’s share of the world export market is continuing to drop. France’s share of the export market went from 6.1% in 1995 to 5.1% in 2000. It then fell to 4.2% in 2006 and stood at just 3.5% in 2013. The automotive sector provides a good example of this French industrial decline. In 2003, France’s automotive sector had a trade surplus of €12.6 billion but this had turned into a €6.9 billion deficit by 2014!

Economists put the decline of French foreign trade down to a lack of competitiveness, due to both price and other reasons. In France, costs have tended to increase faster than productivity and the products are not perceived as giving sufficiently high ‘value for money’, particularly compared with products “Made in Germany”.

The French aeronautical sector is an exception to this trend; indeed, the sector has prevented the balance of trade deficit from plunging further. The aviation sector – both civil and military – and the space industry have posted a foreign trade surplus in excess of €23 billion over the last few years, representing the largest surpluses in the overall French balance of trade. France is the world’s second largest exporter in the aeronautical field, with 22% of the worldwide market, after the United States (35 %). Germany is the third largest exporter with 14% of the worldwide market. France has seen its market share increase by 8% in ten years, unlike the agri-food and automotive sectors.

Airbus’ exports represent the lion’s share of French exports. Airbus accounts for roughly 50% of French exports in the aeronautical sector. Table 1 below shows direct sales of new French-built aircraft to foreign airline companies and the shipments of turnkey A380 aircraft from France to Germany for subsequent deliveries from the Hamburg site, as well as the value in euros (€M) of these exports.

Table 1 – Airbus exports in terms of value (€) and numbers of aircraft
Value in M€  Numbers of aircraft
2004 11 356 184
2005 13 216 212
2006 15 189 256
2007 14 594 278
2008 15 647 289
2009 16 232 273
2010 18 935 285
2011 19 020 271
2012 22 548 296
2013 24 997 317
2014 25 005 321

How has the French aeronautical sector remained successful amid the overall decline of French industry?

The aeronautical sector is an oligopoly characterised by heavy capital investment and products with advanced technology . As such, the cost of entering the market is extremely high. In France, the aeronautical sector represents around 4,000 companies and employs 320,000 people directly. The success of the French aeronautical sector is the result of an industrial strategy built on strong technological assets, strategic European alliances and strong political support:

  • R&D and technological expertise which is among the best in the world thanks to the quality of engineering training in France (mastery of systems design and production, design offices, tests, assembly lines).
  • Integration within a European consortium with international partnerships and added value resulting from the blending of industrial cultures.
  • An efficient, well-structured national sector built around a limited number of aircraft manufacturers (Airbus, Dassault, Eurocopter), engine makers (Snecma and Turbomeca, belonging to the Safran Group), equipment manufacturers that supply complete sub-assemblies (Safran, Zodiac Aerospace, Thales, etc.) and major Tier-1 sub-contractors (Latécoère, etc.): Cf.:Strategic Committee for the Aeronautical Sector, July 2014.

However, a certain number of challenges lie ahead for the French aeronautical industry.

1- Asia accounts for an increasingly large part of the global air-transport market and a new manufacturer could enter the market to compete with the two powerhouses, namely Airbus and Boeing. Airbus forecasts that passenger traffic in China will exceed that of the United States within 20 years and China aims to take a share of the aeronautical sector. To develop its sales in China, Airbus decided to increase its purchases of Chinese components and to set up an A320 assembly plant in the country.

2- France plays a pivotal assembly role in Europe. The country imports parts and aeronautical equipment, essentially from Europe (foreign trade deficit) and exports complete aircraft (large foreign trade surplus). Complete aircraft account for over two thirds of French aeronautical exports. Delocalising the assembly of Airbus aircraft therefore has a negative impact on France’s balance of trade. At the same time, Germany is taking an increasingly important position in the European aeronautical sector, with a growing number of A320s being assembled on the site in Hamburg. This is Airbus’s best-selling aircraft, already assembled on several sites, in Toulouse, Hamburg, Tianjin (China) and, since 2015, in Mobile (USA).

3- Aeronautical R&D accounts for over €3 billion of investment in France every year. However, within Airbus itself, the question is being asked as to whether R&D leadership has shifted from France to Germany. At the beginning of the 2000s, the R&D expenditure of Airbus France was one and a half times greater than that of Airbus Germany. Ten years on, the R&D expenditure in Germany was 10% more than in France. To be more precise, Airbus Germany is responsible for a significant section of the fuselage of Airbus planes and for the cabins. In addition, Germany is the leader in terms of materials R&D, although France is still the R&D leader for certain key components, such as the cockpit, flight controls, navigation and traffic management.

4- The aeronautical and space industry is also one of the rare industrial sectors in which jobs are being created, and in which skilled jobs are predominant. Engineers and managers account for approximately 41% of all the jobs in the sector. However, the French education system is not able to supply the aeronautical sector with all the technicians, welders, and metal workers that it requires. For instance, small-and-medium-sized aeronautical sub-contractors have much greater problems recruiting the staff they need than Airbus.

5- Finally, the industry also carries significant risks, considering the investment required to launch a new aircraft. Indeed, there was a fear the A380 would not be a commercial success. Each new aircraft brought onto the market can also run into serious problems, as in the case of the A400M. Consequently, there is no guarantee of success.

By Pierre André Buigues, based on research by Elie COHEN and Pierre-André BUIGUES (2014) “Le décrochage industriel”, Fayard, pp 439, [978-2-213-68188-7]; Pierre-André BUIGUES and Denis LACOSTE (2011) “Stratégies d’Internationalisation des Entreprises Menaces et Opportunités”, De Boeck, pp 376. [978-2804162917]