Creating an Innovative Culture in Chemical Research

The pressure on chemical researchers and engineers to innovate has never been greater than it is today.

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Christina VälimäkiChristina Välimäki

The pressure on chemical researchers and engineers to innovate has never been greater than it is today. Increased expectations of better margins for shareholders is driving demand for improved performance, quicker returns and higher quality — all for less cost than before. Innovation is clearly recognized as a crucial differentiator by chemical companies; PwC estimates that, in 2015 alone, global chemical and energy R&D spending topped $40 billion worldwide as chemical companies strived for competitive advantage through innovation.

Yet, despite the huge benefits that creative innovation can yield, there is relatively little recognition for the hard work and originality of the individual researchers who achieve those breakthrough moments. Failing to properly acknowledge researchers that contribute to critical idea-generation can have a significant impact, leaving staff unmotivated. As a result, invention and creativity can end up being stifled rather than encouraged.

Inventors Anonymous

That individual innovators have had to take a backseat is perhaps not surprising. A number of factors have contributed to the trend. First, the era of blue sky invention that saw game-changing breakthroughs – such as DuPont’s Neoprene or Teflon – make researchers such as Wallace Carothers and Roy Plunkett famous, inevitably faded. Instead, R&D became more focused on product applications development or extending existing products into new markets. These new applications, while still immensely valuable, are less momentum shifting and more incremental. Ultimately, this means that innovation is more easily overlooked or taken for granted.

The effect of this trend has led to R&D spending too often and taking on the negative connotations of being a “cost-center.” When compared to other areas within chemical organizations that demonstrate cost reductions, process improvements or sales boosts, R&D teams have been challenged to directly translate good ideas into demonstrable revenue—adding another layer of pressure on to researchers.

Finally, the desire to hold on to the best employees has also been a factor. As the battle for talent has increased over the past 20-30 years, many companies have become more worried about their top researchers being headhunted by competitors. Therefore, in an attempt to head off potential brain-drain, they have avoided giving too much recognition to specific individuals.

Celebrating The Innovator

These issues have led to an underappreciation of individual researchers, yet celebrating the achievements of chemists and lab technicians is critical. Without recognition, it’s hard for researchers to feel motivated, especially in a field as complex, yet not particularly headline grabbing, as materials innovation. Today, even a small breakthrough requires a huge level of unrelenting perseverance, knowledge and skill. The sheer volume and growth of information available in today’s Big Data world has placed incredible pressure on researchers to find the precise pieces of data that help spur innovation, and in turn deliver competitive advantage. As a result, when a researcher does achieve that breakthrough moment or an important milestone in product development is reached, it is the product of months and years of investigation and work.

For every valuable breakthrough, there may have been a dozen other ideas that yielded no results. It is important not just for the individual employee, but the entire organization, to recognize innovators as the lifeblood of growth for research-focused companies. Making sure that R&D teams are able to maintain a consistent flow of imaginative research paths is the best way to secure game-changing new inventions and applications. Celebrating innovation helps build that culture of innovation throughout an organization, where all employees are encouraged to take risks, bring new ideas to the table and help improve performance.

Rethinking Rewards

One mistake that is often made by organizations attempting to develop an innovation culture is to throw money at the issue. However, while it might seem intuitive to offer huge rewards for major breakthroughs, research from Oliver Baumann and Nils Stieglitz shows that this is actually inefficient. Moreover, research has consistently found that millennials believe that employer’s recognition and appreciation programs are insufficient and that the majority of successful programs were built around a core of manager and peer appreciation.

Baumann and Stieglitz’s work is particularly relevant to the chemical and processing industries, given that chemical innovation is overwhelmingly focused on incremental improvements. Their work offers a clear model for businesses that recognize the innovation imperative and are looking to support an innovation culture.

There are numerous ways that companies can look to structure reward systems, but the underlying point is that innovation is the lifeblood of chemical companies operating in a hyper-competitive market. Neglecting to acknowledge the contributions of those individuals who put in the hard hours to achieve significant breakthroughs can leave researchers feeling undervalued and act as a barrier to developing an innovation culture.

So for chemical manufacturing and processing firms looking to remain competitive in today’s market, the question isn’t can you afford to recognize the contributions of innovators — it’s can you afford not to?

Christina Välimäki is the Senior Director for Chemicals at Elsevier

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