Forget meaning for now, SMEs need a language of innovation

George Oliver

Jun 6


min read

Language is a fundamental concepts in increasing small business understanding of the benefits of innovation.

But it doesn't help that the term itself - innovation - is the source of never-ending discussion and debate.

'What IS innovation?', will be the opening question at many a discussion group. 'What does it mean to you?'

Fundamentally, it means the creation and use of new ideas and methods. But that's according to just one definition. And it's not really definitive at all.

Meaning often depends on who you are talking to. Innovation means different things to different people.

If the audience in front of you are universities, for example, innovation may mean 'new-to-market' and conjure up thoughts of R&D projects and large investment.

Underpinned globally by billions of public and private sector funding, this form of innovation necessarily has a language of its own.

Acronyms, jargon, and slang terms serve as shorthand for practitioners to quickly and precisely make themselves understood within specialist stakeholder groups.

But what does it mean outside of the campus?

Innovation and small business

Over recent weeks, small teams reporting to the LLEP Innovation Board have been discussing ways to increase small business innovation in Leicester and Leicestershire.

It is part of the delivery of a 10-point regional Innovation Strategy that encompasses both university research and practical signposting for SMEs.

The opportunity of this 'new-to-business' innovation is clear in terms for regional growth: SMEs grow from innovation - whether it be in the shape of increased productivity or becoming more profitable.

The challenge is that the culture around innovation is far more established and widespread on university campuses than it is among SMEs.

For example, many small business would not view themselves as being innovative. My view is that they are.

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Innovation is not invention

History shows, time and time again, that the inventor of a new product or service is not the person who goes on to successfully commercialise it.

Many inventors have faded into obscurity, eclipsed by the entrepreneurs who became household names (and often very rich) by seizing upon the the potential of the idea and developing it for market.

These entrepreneurs are the innovators - the business leaders and policy makers - who pick up on an idea, adapt it for their audience, and sell it.

How does this apply to small businesses in Leicester and Leicestershire? They are the entrepreneurs.

In a region in which 98% of businesses employ fewer than 50 people, serious economic growth requires increased small business productivity.

That does not need to involve huge change. New-to-business innovation focuses on incremental improvements rather than large-scale reforms.

Smaller initiatives, such as streamlining processes or introducing new technologies, can help improve efficiency without requiring a major overhaul of existing systems.

Innovation doesn’t have to be disruptive - new-to-business simply means finding better ways of doing things that will lead to longer-term efficiency for the business.

Communicating SME innovation

One of the 10 strands of the LLEP Innovation Strategy is language. We need to be able to communicate with all groups if we are to encourage them to try innovating within their own organisations.

To do that, we need to speak in a language that is understood by stakeholders and can be easily acted upon. As described above, this already exists for university R&D.

In order to move forward with language around small business innovation, we need to first accept two things:

  1. Innovation can be new-to-market
  2. Innovation can be new-to-business.

From there, we can then look at communication which meets the particular needs and ways of working of each audience.

In Leicester and Leicestershire, this means rethinking how we talk about innovation for a small business audience.

In order to be actionable and useful, the language needs to be familiar and the change needs to be manageable.

That's why you can expect to see less jargon and more phrases like growing the business, problem solving, and continuous improvement in Innovative Leicestershire comms.

  • 1284 Managing Director George Oliver is a co-founder of the LeicestershireLive Innovation Awards. He works on communications for the Leicester and Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership and the LLEP Innovation Board.
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