Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tradition as a source of innovation?

At first sight, tradition is not a genuine source of innovation and dynamism. However, the Jura region, one of the most peripheral areas of Switzerland, has a long tradition in watch making, and is one of the most dynamic regions of the country. What might be the reason? A few thoughts on leadership, innovation, stakeholder-networks and tradition.

The news: According to a Credit Suisse study, the Jura, one of the peripheral, rural areas of Switzerland, ranks among the top 5 of the most dynamic regions of our country http://snipurl.com/22lul1s.

Switzerland is often associated with banks, chocolate, cheese and watches. Among the respective industries, the watch making industry is the most dynamic presently. The Swatch-Group, mother of many world famous brands, is growing rapidly, and presenting new record-breaking results. Growth comes from all regions of the world, and from all customer segments.

But not only the great market dominator, also many smaller Swiss watch brands are very successful and dynamic. Many – or almost all of them – are located in a peripheral area of Switzerland, where no one would expect dynamic global industries. Some of the most delicate, complicated and sought-after pieces are handcrafted to highest precision standards by dedicated people with very specific skills and knowledge in the region of the Jura mountains.

Asked for the reasons of success, one of their answers is that there is no other place in the world, where so many people have had the knowledge and tradition of watchmaking for such a long time. In many towns and villages, watches have been made for more than 200 years.

Tradition may be a source of success, just as much as it may be the reason for lethargy. So the question is how tradition can contribute to success. Tradition is a form of sharing knowledge, not only today, but also through generations. It is a form of sharing knowledge in a way that cannot be replicated by the most sophisticated software. Tradition expands the stakeholder network to the dimension of time.

In the case of watchmaking in the Jura, tradition is the success-critical intangible asset of a whole region. It preserves supra-individual inspirational resources that condense to creativity and even to innovation if the right people are brought together, to follow the same vision.

In the 1970ies and early 80ies, when cheap Japanese quartz watches conquered the global markets, the Swiss watchmaking industry almost disappeared. The watchmaking companies of the Jura regions lost their license to innovate, as well as their license to compete, and people lost their jobs. But most obviously, knowledge, tradition and specific skills survived. When Nicolas Hayek, the founder of the Swatch Group reanimated the Swiss watch industry from its coma, he could rely on what I previously called the “supra-individual inspirational resources”.

Hayek was the core of condensation for the resurrection of a whole industry, and a whole region. Of course, he was a visionary leader. But visionary and charismatic individual leadership is not the whole story. Leadership flourishes on the foundations, and out of a specific culture and tradition, of shared knowledge. It emerges within a stakeholder network that reaches out not only in space, but also in time.

Tradition, culture – “supra-individual inspirational resources” – may trigger leadership, innovation and dynamics with people, in regions where no one would expect them.

Christoph Weber-Berg

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