Recipe for innovation


AirAsia CEO and others give you recipe for innovation

By LIZ LEE lizlee@thestar.com.my

KUALA LUMPUR: What fosters the spirit of innovation? The answers point to an encouraging environment and putting Malaysia into context, there is much to be done at the home, education and corporate levels to create an environment fertile for sowing the seeds of unconventional thinking.

That was the main take-away from the second Merdeka Award Roundtable last week, featuring group chief executive of AirAsia Bhd Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, Malaysian Invention and Design Society president Tan Sri Dr Augustine Ong Soon Hock and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Zaini Ujang.

The award was founded by energy companies Petronas, ExxonMobil and Shell in 2007 where award recipients will receive a certificate and RM500,000 cash award for each of five categories.

“(Innovation) is not something you can teach or programme. It is creating a lot of little ecosystems to make sure (the environment is right) and culture does play a part in this,” Fernandes said, kicking off the discussion on “Cultivating a culture of innovation in challenging times.”

Sharing ideas: (from left) Zaini, Ong and Fernandes at the second Merdeka Award Roundtable. The discussion was hosted by Astro Awani’s Norina Yahya

Of the education system, Fernandes said the focus on books had overwhelmed the development in other areas that build thought leaders.

“When we look at some of the great leaders, they are all rounded. Our schools have lost a lot by focusing on academics only,” he said.

Fernandes believed that while the Government should foster innovation as well as trust the people and allow ideas, education is the key to take Malaysia to the next level. He opined that bringing back arts, culture and sport would change the way the future generation thinks.

“A successful education system should be about bringing out the best in children and giving them the ability to experiment and try all sorts of things and turn that raw diamond into a polished diamond,” he said.

As a parent, he believed that it was important to “expose the children to as many things as possible and allow them to go where they want.”

At the corporate level, he added that there was also a culture of subordination in Malaysia that hampered creative output: “When you go against the norm in Malaysia, you can be whacked. It’s sometimes seen as insubordinate or questionable when you challenge the norm.”

“That’s the culture. Malaysians are an innovative lot but sometimes we need to praise innovation by creating the environment,” he said, adding that the success stories of Malaysian innovation were not sung often enough.

“We don’t hear enough of the success stories. A lot of our technology came from Malaysians and we need to show that the commercialisation of these ideas have come to fruition,” he said.

During the discussion, Fernandes also revealed that the flat structure in AirAsia’s management was the “secret weapon” for its success in the industry. He said that communication flow relied on organisation structure.

“If you have a hierarchical organisation, the people who have ideas are sometimes too scared to speak up. (But) it’s all right to give ideas, it’s all right to talk,” he said of the potentially stifling hierarchical organisation structures in many Malaysian companies.

“I always say I would rather have 9,000 brains working with me than just 10,” he said, adding on that “if you create an environment where everyone feels equal and there’s freedom of expression (among all levels of employees), that provides a very powerful machine.”

However, innovating per se should not be the end goal too.

Ong, who is also a former member of the Merdeka Award Health, Science and Technology Committee, said there needed to be market-driven innovations to encourage worthwhile creations.

“When you have innovation for a market that is not ready for it, that becomes a problem,” he said.

“We should also look at what our country has a niche in. We should concentrate on areas where we already have good industries going on where innovation can bring some results,” he added, saying that foreign areas like nuclear energy may not be an ideal area to innovate since the country had yet to develop its know-how and infrastructure.

In terms of getting academicians engaged with market-centric needs, Zaini said UTM had a professorship scheme with Proton Holdings Bhd where professors were positioned at the company to spur on-the-ground projects with the staff.

“We target to have 100 patents under Proton per year from this industrial PhD,” the former Merdeka Award recipient said, highlighting the university’s market-relevant endeavours through the reverse flow of ideas from the market into academia.

The roundtable will be broadcast on Astro Awani in early December.

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