To establish an innovative business model, disruptive start-ups use a strategy resting on two complementary processes: building a discourse which will engage clients and partners in the new ecosystem, also known as framing, and continuous adaptation of their business model in response to the needs of clients. This will be illustrated by the case of Salesforce versus Siebel in the business software industry at the start of the 2000s.
Cases of successful disruptive innovation, where a start-up manages to radically transform the functioning of an industry, remain exceptional. Among the best-known are Amazon with the distribution and sale of books or Netflix which revolutionised the film distribution industry in the United States. They have resulted in the creation of a new business model which shifts the industrial ecosystem’s centre of gravity away from the historic leader and towards the start-up, and ends up creating a new ecosystem around the start-up. Business
model innovation is characterised by new sources of value creation, the arrival of new clients and partners and the implementation of a new kind of organisation, which rivals the business model of the historic leader and gradually replaces it.
Revealing one’s intentions from the outset
Up until now, studies of disruptive innovation have been more interested in the reaction of existing businesses, and much less in the manner in which the start-up succeeded in establishing its business model. Hence, the importance of understanding the processes set
in motion by the disruptor, which starts off with slender means with which to attract clients, partners, the media and analysts, and ends up taking the lead over an established and much more powerful competitor, and in some cases, making it disappear.
This is the process that we call the disruptor strategy, whose aim is to reduce uncertainty in order to engage consumers and partners as players in the creation of the new ecosystem: from the outset, in order to get their attention and support, the start-up reveals its
intentions and ambitions through framing, ie, the construction of an effective discourse and presentation. At the same time, it must adapt its business model and its product to achieve the best possible offer for its clients and partners. The combination of these two actions
creates a virtuous circle and puts the historic leader on the horns of a dilemma: retaliate at the risk of legitimising the new business model, or do nothing and risk being overtaken.
Salesforce and the emergence of the cloud
The study of the emergence of Salesforce between 1999 and 2006 against Siebel in the management and client relation (CRM) software sector illustrates the concept of disruptor strategy. Originally, software publishers (Siebel, SAP) sold their clients CRM software and
costly products associated with maintenance and consulting services. Salesforce’s innovation consisted of coming up with a much less expensive business model, based on cloud computing, with SaaS services available by subscription. In the first instance, this product was aimed at consumers who were not part of the Siebel ecosystem.
Before Salesforce had even launched, it was already addressing the ecosystem with a discourse emphasising its unique affinity with the “no software” revolution, and then its leadership, via press releases, interviews and dramatic stunts. This framing found an echo with start-ups and small-to-medium-sized businesses lacking the means to invest in a heavy system; with partners interested in the new ecosystem; and with the media and analysts who relayed and amplified Salesforce’s discourse and took up a more critical position in relation to Siebel. At the same time as new consumers were starting to get interested in the product, Salesforce was continually improving it to reach the standards expected by the majority of existing consumers. By combining these two framing processes and adapting the business model, the start-up had started to seduce Siebel’s clients and partners within two or three years.
In the face of Salesforce’s offensive, Siebel didn’t react at first. The firm stayed with its old model without taking account of the new needs created by a competitor which it didn’t yet perceive as such. It only launched into the cloud in 2003, three years late. A vicious circle, symmetrical with Salesforce’s virtuous circle, falls into place: poor responses, mounting criticism in the media and from analysts, mass exodus of clients and partners to the new ecosystem. Finally, in 2006, Salesforce became the leading supplier of CRM services, while Siebel was bought by Oracle.
A situation that was hard to predict
The Salesforce-Siebel case is a prime example of the establishment of a new business model. It highlights the importance of these two complementary processes of framing and adaptation in the disruptor’s strategy. This is, of course, an individual case, but it shares elements with other cases of successful disruption like Amazon and Netflix. For businesses, there are a number of lessons to be learned from these results. For the disruptors, it’s about the importance of pulling on both levers at the same time, given that the temporal window is limited. That means they have to find a way to reveal themselves clearly, but without being too precise, so as not to limit their scope for adaptation. In its framing, Salesforce presented itself as the leader by stating that it was offering a better value product and that its service was cheaper, but without going into the key points of the new business model.
For the leader, it’s hard to know how to react. Siebel had logical reasons for not responding to Salesforce in a market sector in which – at first at least – it had no interest. It’s very tricky to predict whether a start-up will be successfully disruptive or not. The problem is that Salesforce gained a competitive advantage by learning faster than Siebel. Siebel didn’t ask itself the right questions for several years, and the needs of Salesforce’s start-up clients were ahead of the needs of its own clients. When the firm did finally take action, its cloud didn’t function as well as Salesforce’s one, despite an R&D budget and far greater human resources.
To avoid this, existing businesses must therefore develop a strategic vision, an understanding of what is happening in their environment, in order to try to learn more quickly than the start-ups and be attentive to the market of tomorrow. But it’s very difficult for a firm to say that in 10 years’ time its clients will want products that are completely different from those it has on offer today.
This article is a synthesis of the publication “An Ecosystem-Level Process Model of Business Model Disruption: The Disruptor’s Gambit”, published in the Journal of Management Studies. It presents the results of a longitudinal study carried out by Yuliya Snihur (Toulouse Business School), Llewellyn D.W. Thomas (Imperial College London, Universitat Ramon Llull) and Robert A. Burgelman (Stanford School of Graduate Business), from the case study of Salesforce and Siebel, combining a theoretical approach and the analysis of a documentary base of historic data.
[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.
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]
[su_pullquote align=”right”]Par Yuliya Snihur[/su_pullquote]
In the construction of a corporate identity for their business, creators of innovative start-ups have to simultaneously highlight their distinctiveness and also show that they belong to a pre-existing category of similar businesses. The objective is to reach “optimal distinction” which means finding a balance between an identity which is distinct from other businesses, and a “group” identity where they can show they belong to well-established business category. This balance is important if starts-ups are to grow their reputation and legitimacy.
To be unique but not too unique, that is the dilemma. A business’s first few years of existence are critical for the construction of its identity. It’s a period when creators make strategic choices which they must implement rapidly so that the business project survives and develops, but whose consequences are difficult to modify over the long term. The aim is to highlight the distinctiveness of the business while reassuring potential customers and partners about its normality. This balance is what’s known as “optimum distinction”. To succeed, a midway point has to be found between being unique, which contributes to the reputation of the firm, and the need to be like the others, to belong to a pre-existing and recognised group or category, which delivers legitimacy.
In search of optimum distinction
The challenge of building a corporate identity is something all new businesses have to face, but it’s even more intense for innovating companies with new business models, ie, a way of running their business which breaks away from existing practices in their sector. By definition, start-ups have no history or track record and are unknown to the general public, who have no frame of reference or benchmarks to rely on when it comes to trust.
What this study seeks to identify is the means by which innovating start-up companies build their reputation and legitimacy in the eyes of the public. To answer this question, we have analysed the way in which four young businesses built their identity. All four had introduced new business models, but each belonged to a different market sector: health, restaurants, digital services and the hotel sector. The results reveal four specific actions that were present in every case: these are storytelling, the use of analogy, seeking accreditation or reviews, and the establishment of alliances or partnerships. On the basis of these results, we have come up with a theoretical model which shows the link between each action taken and its consequences for the business’s corporate identity as perceived by the public, each action tending to influence both the reputation and the legitimacy of the firm.
Self-affirmation and external recognition
The first two actions are the sole responsibility of the creator and are linked to the way the business proclaims or declares itself from the start. Storytelling describes the genesis of the enterprise and gives it meaning. If it highlights individual experience or the personality of the creator, it will have an influence the reputation of the firm; if it highlights a social issue, like sustainable development, it will be more likely to establish its legitimacy. Analogies, on the other hand, allow the firm to explain its contribution by comparing it to other players in other sectors, close to or distant from the firm’s own activity. When the players are from the same sector, we speak of a local analogy whose aim is to build up the firm’s legitimacy. If they are from different sectors, this more distant analogy will result in a strengthening of its reputation.
The two other types of action involve a broader cross-section of collaborators. These actions need to be taken later on because they require more time to put in place and call for a more objective assessment of the firm’s competency compared with other businesses or organisations. A third-party evaluation can take multiple forms, from rankings and prizes to processes of certification or accreditation. In the first instance, the evaluation should grow its reputation, in the second, it will impact on its legitimacy. And finally, establishing partnerships, with the regular meetings that entails, leads to stronger relationships with third parties. This leads also to image enhancement through association, which fosters the firm’s reputation or justifies its membership of a group or a category and thus confers legitimacy.
Consequences to be confirmed in new research phase
The size of our sample and the short period over which the study was undertaken do not allow us to draw any general conclusions about the effects of these four actions. Nonetheless, the replication of similar results in a sample of four businesses belonging to four different sectors does make it possible to offer hypotheses that make a fresh contribution to the theory of business identity, especially in the particular instance of businesses operating an innovative business model in their sector. These hypotheses could be tested in future studies on a larger sample and at a more advanced stage in the development of the business. On a practical note, new businesses engaged in innovation could use them to find pointers on the timing and the actions to implement to construct their firm’s corporate identity.
[su_spoiler title=”Méthodologie”]The approach chosen for this qualitative study draws on the field of multiple case-by-case studies. Yuliya Shilhur selected the four most innovative businesses in terms of their business models in four different sectors, from a representative line-up of 165 firms chosen at the start. The results were obtained by studying 620 pages of documentary sources (both internal and external) supplied by the firms and 29 interviews with inside sources (founders, employees) and external ones (investors, clients). The study was published in February 2016 in the review, Entrepreneurship and Regional Development, under the title “Developing optimal distinctiveness: organizational identity processes in new ventures engaged in business model innovation.” [/su_spoiler]
Any company faced with a radical innovation in its sector of activity will hesitate between indifference and reaction, because of the impossibility of foreseeing whether the innovation is a radical breakthrough or a product that is doomed to fail. To resolve this dilemma, the solution might be to identify potentially disruptive innovations and assess their risk for established stakeholders, as illustrated by the case of the satellite industry.
The miniaturisation of satellites has affected space industry markets over the last 20 years. On the offer side, new manufacturers have emerged, marketing small satellites at a lower cost; on the demand side, there are new clients that see this innovation as an opportunity. Quite logically, the well-established manufacturers, positioned in the segment of traditional large-size satellites, are wondering whether they should consider these radically new technological choices as a threat?
Disruptive innovation is difficult to observe until it’s happened
Our research, conducted in the framework of the Sirius chair (http://chaire-sirius.eu), aims to answer this question, which first involves clarifying the concept of ‘disruptive innovation’. This is necessary because the expression, which is widely used and sometimes mistakenly, makes established players in the sector anxious, while fascinating and intriguing them, without it being entirely clear what exactly we are talking about.
A disruptive innovation is a particular case of radical innovation which modifies the structure of an industrial sector and whose effects may lead to existing companies being replaced by new competitors. The difficulty is that it is only possible to be certain that it is a disruptive innovation in the long run, a posteriori, once it has staked out its place or even driven out the oldest technologies and the companies that marketed them. In the short term it appears rather to be a less efficient product or service, aimed at a marginal clientele, an immature technology proposed by small companies with limited resources, less know-how and less knowledge of the market.
Because of these characteristics, it is very difficult to distinguish between a real disruptive innovation which has just been introduced and so requires that existing companies react, and an innovation destined to fail, that they can comfortably ignore. This creates uncertainty about what they should do, which is known as the innovator’s dilemma, since existing companies should promptly assess the danger and possibly invest in the new market while the disruptive innovation is not yet a threat, if they are to limit the consequences. If they wait too long, it might be too late.
A classification for anticipating the threat
What matters to company executives is to be able to anticipate trends and thus, if possible, to be able to use forecasting tools. Since it is not possible to affirm at an early stage that an innovation is disruptive, the solution is to try and determine in the short term whether it has the typical characteristics, in other words whether it is a potentially disruptive innovation and if so what type of threat it is likely to pose to well established stakeholders.
Not all disruptive innovations have the same consequences: some lead to complete substitution of the old technology by the new one and thus pose an extreme threat, the typical case being that of silver-based, emulsion film photography wiped out by digital photography; other innovations do not entirely replace the initial products. This is the case in air transport, for which low-cost companies have captured only some of the clientele of traditional companies, and in telephony, where landline technology continues to coexist with mobile technology. These examples are characteristic of three types of disruptive innovation for which only the first is associated with a high risk of the pre-existing market disappearing. In the two other cases, the threat appears to be lower for established companies.
Small satellites, a limited threat
What then is the situation for the space industry? Given this conceptual framework, how should well established stakeholders react to the development of small satellites? According to the parameters chosen for our theoretical model, small satellites have most of the characteristics of potentially disruptive innovation: lower technological performance with respect to the requirements of the traditional main customers; they are less complex; they either cost less or on the contrary cost much more, for instance in the case of constellations of small satellites; they offer the perspective of introducing new performance criteria such as the possibility of designing, building and launching a new satellite in a very short time or again the improvements offered by constellations in low Earth orbit.
However, an analysis of the demand for these new satellites shows that they are intended mainly for new customers, which means that we can exclude the hypothesis of a disruptive innovation affecting an existing market, which is really the main risk case for manufacturers. Those who buy them can be divided into institutional customers from emerging countries, which do not have sufficient resources to launch conventional satellites, and private top-of-the-market customers with new needs for low orbit constellations, which conventional satellites do not meet.
Thus, small satellites are indeed a potentially disruptive innovation but they only pose a slight threat to well established stakeholders. Despite the structural changes they might lead to for this industry, there is not much risk that they will entirely replace conventional satellites. This in no way determines either their ultimate success or failure.
[su_spoiler title=”Methodology”]This study was conducted by Victor dos Santos Paulino (TBS) and Gaël Le Hir (TBS) in the framework of the Sirius chair, on a topic proposed by the chair’s industrial partners. For the theoretical part, the authors reviewed the existing literature on the theory of disruptive innovation, which enabled them to draw up a table classifying the characteristics of potentially disruptive innovations. They then applied this model to the satellite industry while referring to several sources of information (information published by manufacturers, sectoral information, interviews with experts, databases). The study was published in the Journal of Innovation Economics & Management in February 2016 under the title “Industry structure and disruptive innovations: the satellite industry”.[/su_spoiler]
The case of innovation in the space industry
Innovation is one of the major themes in management. The capacity to innovate is considered to be critical for businesses to succeed. However, if we look at the space industry, we can see that innovation should be bridled with caution if a strategy is to succeed.
Conventional wisdom claims that the rapid adoption of new technologies improves the performance and survival of companies. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, Joseph Schumpeter had demonstrated the link between innovation and industrial success. In the 1990s, other scholars, such as Joel Mokyr, followed suit while explaining the inertia (the slow adoption of new technology) as being due to the phobic and irrational attitudes of managers. Against this backdrop, the space industry provides an interesting, and even paradoxical, example: this highly technological sector is a symbol of innovation, yet it considers it necessary to adopt a cautious approach. This is a requirement for telecommunications satellite operators, for whom reliability is more important than novelty, a factor that entails risk.
Uncertainty in the space industry
Innovation is a complex phenomenon that does not automatically guarantee success, progress and profits. For example, it has been demonstrated that over 60% of innovations led to failures. In addition, many companies legitimately postpone the adoption of innovations in several cases: for example, when an innovation would cannibalize an existing product or make it obsolete, or when the costs turn out to be too high compared with the expected profits. Do these factors explain the inertia-based strategy observed in the space industry?
By its very nature, the use of new technology by the space industry entails a risk: ground testing of a component, even under conditions that simulate space, may not accurately predict its behaviour in flight. It may perform perfectly, or prove faulty and no-one can be sure ahead of time! The result is that satellite manufacturers tend to favour an inertia-based strategy with which technological changes are adopted in an extremely cautious manner. Only tried and tested innovations are implemented. The cost of failure makes both manufacturers and their customers behave cautiously.
Reliability is a source of competitive advantage in space telecoms
Caution features strongly in the space telecommunications sector, because the reliability of satellites is a major competitive advantage. To ensure the greatest reliability, manufacturers have set up perfectly tuned organisations and processes. This is why the cycle of design, development and manufacture of satellites is broken down – and must continue to be so, into successive phases: Phase 0 > Mission analysis; Phase A > Feasibility study; Phase B > Preliminary design; Phase C > Detailed design; Phase D > Manufacturing and testing; Phase E > Exploitation; Phase F > Decommissioning. While this approach helps ensure high levels of reliability, it also brings with it considerable structural inertia.
This need for reliability and stability leads space manufacturers to adopt information and communications technologies that have the least impact on the organization. However, it also leads them to not question technological choices for space telecommunications, choices that increase reliability, but do not allow any savings in production costs. Serge Potteck, a specialist in space project management, emphasises, for example, that to transmit a signal, engineers prefer to design antennas with a diameter of 60 cm in order to guard against possible malfunctions, whereas a less costly 55 cm antenna would suffice.
Differences between segments in the space sector
This analysis, however, needs to be refined for each of the different segments that make up the space sector. They can be classified into three groups. The first consists of telecommunications satellites and rockets (launchers). In this segment, the cost of failure would be very high. It would penalize the manufacturer, who would have produced a non-functioning satellite as well as the company that operates the launchers and markets launch services, but, also, all the players involved in the business plan. A failure can cause a delay of several years in the marketing of new telecommunications services to be delivered by satellite.
The second group consists of spacecraft built for scientific or demonstration purposes, and as always, the rockets used to launch them. The governments or space agencies that commission them are not subject to the usual profitability requirements. Here, disruptive technology and its associated risks are part and parcel of a project.
The last group overlaps the space industry and other industries. It encompasses, for example, the tools to operate the geolocation capabilities of the Galileo constellation or the distribution of digital content. In this segment, stability is seen as detrimental to the development of new markets.
An inertia-based strategy… but only at first sight
While the particular environment in which the space sector operates tends to dampen its ability to experiment, it does not entirely prevent innovation. Inertia-based strategies are, in fact, largely an appearance. What we refer to as “inertia” is, in fact, a genuine innovation-dynamic: any new technology will be studied carefully before being tested, or not, on a new spacecraft, and before its possible subsequent integration. Could such a strategy, therefore, ensure the survival of a market in certain cases? To consider it as a failure to be countered would be a mistake!
The space industry would probably not innovate much if its only clients were commercial satellite operators. However, space agencies are willing to finance experimental spacecraft, thus accepting the financial risk associated with possible failure. It is thanks to them that the manufacturers of commercial satellites are able to validate the technological choices available to them, since they have proven their reliability.
[su_note note_color=”#f8f8f8″]From my publications, ” Innovation: quand la prudence est la bonne stratégie [Innovation: when caution is the right strategy]”, published in TBSearch magazine, No. 6, July 2014, and ” Le paradoxe du retard de l’industrie spatiale dans ses formes organisationnelles et dans l’usage des TIC [The paradox of the delay of the space industry in its organizational forms and in the use of ICT],” published in Gérer et comprendre [Managing and understanding], December 2006, No. 86[/su_note]
[su_spoiler title=”Methodology”]The analysis of the organizational and technological paradox that characterizes the space industry is based on several types of information: the theoretical literature available (Hannan and Freeman, 1984; Jeantet, Tiger, Vinck and Tichkiewitch, 1996); the work done by engineers in the sector (Potteck, 1999); and field observations made between 2003 and 2007 at one of the leading European prime contractors manufacturing satellites and space probes.[/su_spoiler]
[su_pullquote align=”right”]By Stéphanie Lavigne[/su_pullquote]
Quite unexpectedly, those European companies which invest the most in Research & Development (R&D) are also those whose majority shareholders are institutional investors (and particularly pension funds located in English-speaking countries) whereas we expected to find so-called ‘strategic’ investors (the State or families) that are generally believed to support a company’s growth policy and therefore also its innovation policy.
The advent of institutional investors in the 1990s led to a radical change in equity breakdown in European companies. Today, 50 to 60% of the capital of European groups listed on the stock exchange is held by pension funds and mutual funds (which manage other peoples’ money). Now, as leading shareholders, they have imposed their own governance principles and value creation strategies, demanding about 15% return on investment for the households whose savings they manage.
To achieve this level of return, companies are implementing financially-driven strategies with shorter investment periods, so that they can deliver ever-increasing dividends to their shareholders on a yearly or even a six-monthly basis. But is this short period of time compatible with a given company’s growth and with its R&D policy in particular?
Relationship between share ownership and R&D policies
In this study, we have tried to establish a relationship between the equity breakdown and innovation policies of major European companies.
A review of empirical studies undertaken so far reveals that they relate almost entirely to the North American market and yield contradictory results. Two opposing theories have emerged regarding the influence of institutional investors: one of the theories asserts that these investors believe in short-term profitability only and do not encourage high-risk innovation policies; the second theory, on the other hand, acknowledges the control exercised by these investors and their positive influence on innovation policy, which ensures the company’s long-term profitability.
Our study shows that in Europe, the more companies’ shares are held by institutional investors the more they spend on R&D whereas we were expecting to find strategic investors such as governments or families that are known to support companies with patient growth policies. It seems that the crucial factor is the investment period of these institutional investors: the longer the period, the greater the likelihood of the company committing to an innovation policy. This may seem insignificant, but the findings have never before been demonstrated in a multinational context (a sample of 324 European companies) over such an extended period of time (tests between 2002 and 2009).
“Patient” investors versus “impatient” investors
One of the major conclusions of our study highlights the detrimental effect of short-term investor attitudes on the innovation strategies of companies, which actually need the support of long-term investors in order to carry out their R&D policies.
When analyzing how the investment period influences the innovation strategies of European companies, we compared companies having short-term or “impatient” investors (with an investment period of less than 18 months) as majority shareholders with companies where long-term or “patient” investors are the majority shareholders. Our findings show that R&D spending is higher when the majority shareholders are patient investors and lower when most of the company’s capital lies in the hands of impatient investors.
[su_note note_color=”#f8f8f8″]This article was written by Stephanie Lavigne and the article “Ownership structures and R&D in Europe: the good institutional investors, the bad, ugly and impatient shareholder”, co-authored by Olivier Brossard and Mustafa Erdem Sakinc, published in Industrial and Corporate Change (Volume 22, Number 4) – Oxford University Press, 5 July 2013.[/su_note]
[su_box title=”Practical applications” style=”soft” box_color=”#f8f8f8″ title_color=”#111111″]Our study of equity breakdown and the innovation strategies of European companies shows that we should not be disparaging about institutional investors but focus on the crucial issue of how long they leave their investments in companies.
With this in mind, companies must learn to identify the investment period of any new institutional investors promptly in order to build a privileged relationship with them and attempt to offset any short-term investors.
[su_spoiler title=”Methodology”]In our research, we conducted an empirical study of the relationship between the equity breakdown and innovation policies of leading European companies. We analysed a sample consisting of the 324 most innovative European companies (as listed on the EU Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard between 2002 and 2009) and compared their R&D expenditure against financial and shareholding data obtained from the Thomson Financial data base.[/su_spoiler]