As Ireland strives to develop into a Knowledge Economy there is increasing focus from both industry and policy makers on Innovation. On the world stage we are finding it evermore difficult to compete in either manufacturing or food production – two of our economy’s key strengths in the past. An innovation culture, it is hoped, will position us to compete as individual businesses and as a nation at a higher level, providing greater opportunities both in terms of differentiation, exports and inward investment. For anyone who operates a service business the Internet stands apart as perhaps the biggest opportunity for innovation and differentiation.

Innovation
Innovation is the process that seeks to bring (often significant) improvement to the way things are currently done.
Successful innovation ultimately brings value to both the business and their customer. Businesses usually innovate in order to improve their product or service offering or to improve how they do things internally.

1. Innovating to improve products
Apple
have changed the way that consumers think about personal computers and more recently about music devices and mobile phones by constantly pushing the boundaries in the design of their products. Gillette continuously innovate in the design of their products continuously improving ease of use and functionality on what are very simple devices.

2. Innovating to improve service
Dell Computers
changed the way they sell their products, empowering consumers and developing increased brand recognition and loyalty at the same time. More recently they have introduced Ideastorm to gather customers’ feedback on how to improve; leading to direct changes to their offerings.

3. Innovating in how things are done
Henry Ford significantly changed the way that cars were manufactured. The shift in the internal processes had a dramatic impact on costs and ultimately on the availability of cars to the general public. Ford motor cars continue to pride themselves on their culture of innovation more than 100 years later. Southwest and later Ryanair significantly changed the way that they provided air travel to their customers. These two companies have changed the landscape of air travel in the US and Europe for millions of passengers.

Ireland, Consumers & Internet
Irish consumers are changing the ways they consume media and the expectations they have of organisations they do business with. 2 out of every 3 adults (aged between 16 and 44) are now online and the numbers are growing by several percentage points each year. Broadband penetration finally seems to be gaining momentum, even if the costs and quality are still largely unacceptable. Mobile broadband take-up is starting to register as a significant trend. Gaming consoles are increasingly clambering onto the network. 10 years ago we described ourselves as living in the Information Age. Today we could say that we are living in the IP Age (IP = Internet Protocol, the platform upon which all Internet content and traffic moves). The technology is no longer merely giving us easier access to more information.
A high-bandwidth high-speed IP network gives us the potential to access and interact with media, applications, systems and people in ways that we have only started to imagine.

It still feels like we are still at the start of things. We are witnessing a revolution in how we live our lives and the measure of our participation in this revolution is how hooked-in to the IP network we are. I have friends and acquaintances who I rarely see but who I know more about what they are doing and how they are feeling than some of my family. It is not just novelty or utility that engages, but increasingly it is social and emotional necessity. The ramifications of this for society are profound.

Organisations need to understand that consumers now expect much more of them in the IP Age. When was the last time you went to an airline website and were not able to book flights because they didn’t have a booking engine? When was the last time you tried to find out about a hotel only to discover that they didn’t have a website? Its unheard of.

There’s doing the bare minimum, and then there’s seizing the opportunity to differentiate your consumer offering by leveraging the potential of the IP Age in innovative ways. And many, many Irish companies are already doing this, in both small and major ways. From SME’s such as Tipperary’s worldwidecycles.com building awareness through blogging, to large corporates such as Vhi launching podcasts, to big media companies such as RTE making TV available on mobile phones, to startups such as Daft.ie meeting the needs of both business and consumer in an unrivalled manner. The list goes on, but one feels that the surface has barely been scratched on the opportunities that exist.

If you’re looking for a little inspiration on where innovation can lead have a look at the Innovate or Die project and then the beautiful multi-media micro-site of co-sponsor Specialized Cycles.