Managing innovation in European defence – A key enabler to success

Our consultants share their first-hand experience on the on-going transformation of defence in Europe, and the role of innovation management in ensuring a more united, effective and safe EU.

Why ‘Defence’ is currently under the spotlight in Europe

Since its inception, the EU’s mission has focused on guaranteeing the free movement of people, goods, services and capital among member states, as well as fostering common policies and funding agriculture, development and trade among others. Beyond these areas of responsibility lays the prerogative of member states, whose will to preserve their freedom of action has arguably hindered a credible common foreign policy. But recently, a new topic has broken the political taboo that had kept it in the backstage of EU policy since the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and has landed on Brussels’ Schuman roundabout with unprecedented vigour.

In the face of emerging threats, old and new, defence and security are undoubtedly closer to the top of any government’s agenda in Western Europe than they have ever been since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Such a shift in political thinking has also been fuelled by the sweeping wave of populism that has jeopardised the West’s historic unified stance when it came to common defence, chiefly embodied by organisations such as NATO.

In this context, the EU is taking a clear initiative to foster a revamped Common Defence and Security Policy (CSDP) and, just as importantly, to enable it at every stage from R&D to operations and force projection. Logically, this presents immediate obstacles such as the sector’s complex and multi-stakeholder context, embroiled even further by the national zeal over sovereignty and know-how preservation, which has led to a lengthy history of fragmentation and a wealth of failed or marred joint development programmes.

Key pillars and elements of the Defence system
Key pillars and elements of the Defence system

To accomplish this feat, the EU has empowered the European Defence Agency (EDA) with a fast-track PPP-enabled R&D roadmap aimed at identifying and developing these key technologies. Starting with the €25m ‘Preparatory Action on Defence Research’ (PADR) in late 2017, EDA will preside over this pioneering feat as the first fully defence-focused R&D grants scheme in the EU, since the current Horizon2020 framework and its predecessors were exclusively and explicitly civil. The Preparatory Action’s mission is to validate the feasibility of a future full-fledged European Defence Research Programme (EDRP) within the next EU multiannual framework set to succeed H2020.

This massive effort undoubtedly requires transparent and reliable guidance. Hardly anyone would disagree that innovation is only meaningful if it solves real needs.

Innovation Management, a key enabler for change in technology and beyond

A convincing answer to this change in paradigm can be found, unexpectedly, in the corporate DNA of organisations far away from the defence sector. Innovation Management has flourished to become a key identity credential for prominent product-centric firms which rely on customer appeal and differentiation to survive. Their structured and tailored approach to developing new solutions has a lot to be learnt from by other sectors and markets, and it has undoubtedly influenced other players’ approach to innovation.

Embodied by trademarked frameworks and methodologies as famed as ‘Design Thinking’ or ‘Blue Ocean’, the value proposition of innovation management resides in its structured approach to ideation, designed to maximise the impact of innovation. It typically proposes a series of team-centric exercises with a clear and traceable aim.

This will most likely start with an in-depth analysis of the environment designed to understand the key strategic objectives of the innovation process. Ideally, in order to prevent any bias limiting creativity, this should be separate from the understanding of one’s value proposition, which aims at understanding the technology or the broader resource toolbox to be used in developing a solution.

Typical basic architecture of an Innovation Management framework. ALG newsletter
Typical basic architecture of an Innovation Management framework

The intersection between both analyses should give a good visibility of possible synergetic opportunities. Ideation will usually start at this point with a focus on bold and varied ideas. Best practices suggest that risk and threat analyses be put on hold as to not constrain the results too strongly on this phase. Complementary ideas among this healthy selection can then be integrated into more consolidated concepts designed to provide the biggest impact. Finally, with these mature concepts in mind, the focus shall move to defining a roadmap to make their realisation possible.

It is essential to keep in mind that this discipline remains an open framework, and is far from a pin-point accurate system. It is intended to be unrestricted and flexible, and can be better understood as a set of guidelines designed to stimulate creative thinking with a purpose, rather than as a rigid process.

And here resides one of its greatest strengths that have made this discipline a genuinely cross-enabler for so many players – the flexibility to understand the value of a given resource to transform a given environment, and develop this into a new solution, makes innovation management a powerful all-terrain asset for both technological and non-technological applications. Be it the application of a new material for a consumer article, or a process re-engineering exercise, innovation management can significantly ease the job of unlocking the most valuable concepts.

The potential of Innovation Management in Defence

The ultimate aim of defence is to provide a credible deterrence and, if need be, the capacity to project force with the highest possible superiority, in order to attain objectives with minimum impact. Thus, preserving this superiority is of utmost importance to any government at the risk of succumbing to security threats. And keeping this upper hand in defence capability has consistently involved, ever since the advent of the Bronze Age, a decided push for innovation in science, technology and beyond.

But innovating is one thing, and doing so successfully is a whole different ballgame. Even the best-funded and staffed R&D programme can meet bitter failure if not steered in the right direction. The risk, as seen on many occasions, is the uncoordinated development of technological know-how with little relevance, or the miss-match between stakeholder expectations, which can result in costly white elephant projects and, even worse, on lost opportunities and growing capability gaps.

The value proposition of innovation management in defence is its potential to ensure the relevance of costly R&D to the ultimate strategic aims of their users. It achieves so through its capacity to generate a large number of ideas with little or no cost, and supporting an early risk reduction-driven trade-off analysis that ensures only the best among many candidates move forward, before actually committing to launching a programme. But perhaps most importantly, it also provides a chance to sew together a fragmented environment by proposing common solutions to apparently diverging problems, helping overcome seemingly insurmountable gaps that have long led to division and duplicity.

Successful examples of its use in defence by pioneering institutions, such as the US’ famed DARPA, include the creation of the Internet, GPS, or ‘stealth’ radar-invisible aircraft.

Classical and emerging applications of innovation management
Classical and emerging applications of innovation management

Obviously, re-purposing off-the-shelf innovation management frameworks to a regulated and risk-critical field such as defence is no easy task. It is key to understand the institutional and organisational environment upon which an innovation management framework shall build. This and other innovation barriers are potential show stoppers that must be identified early and must contribute to a bottom-up empowerment of the R&D community. Perhaps among these barriers, though, the most challenging of all is the natural and ubiquitous reticence to change that characterises all of us as humans.

ALG and Indra Defence & Security are advising the European Defence Agency in the design and implementation of its own brand-new Innovation Management culture as a key trait of its future DNA. As part of this effort, the consulting team is working hand-in-hand with EDA’s officers to ensure the success of this powerful tool.

About the authors
Rubén Martínez is MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and Director at ALG
Germán Meyer is MSc in Telecommunications Engineering and Manager at ALG
Gonçal Berastegui is MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and Consultant at ALG
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