Tuesday 26 April 2016

Artisan businesses must learn the art of small-scale innovation to survive, says study

Horn components
The study looked at the innovations of brass musical instrument manufacturers

The study demonstrates that artisanal knowledge and traditional working practices, far from impeding innovation, can actually facilitate it.
David Smith, Professor of Innovation Management

Creative businesses built on traditional artisanal knowledge can innovate through hard times by remaining small and focusing on quality, according to a research project by Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University.

David Smith, Professor of Innovation Management at Nottingham Business School, studied the brass musical instrument industry, a sector where craft-based methods still survive alongside industrial methods of volume production, and revealed lessons which are transferable to other small, craft-based companies such as micro-brewing and cheese-making.

Along with interviewing musicians, curators, musicologists and instrument dealers, Professor Smith explored how two brass musical instrument makers innovated in different ways during the Great Depression of the 1930s and throughout post-war changes to manufacturing processes.

The study, funded by a British Academy / Leverhulme research grant, shows how the larger of the two firms focused its efforts on process innovations rather than product innovations, including various forms of mechanisation. These developments led to a shift from small batch production to mass production, leading to a sevenfold increase in the scale of production. Instrument manufacture became more a matter of instrument assembly rather than instrument production, with employees undertaking largely repetitive tasks.

In contrast, the smaller firm continued to specialise in the manufacture and sale of only one instrument, the French horn, and hired a small team of craftsmen able to produce high quality hand-crafted instruments in the traditional way, and a professional horn player to increase its network.

While the larger firm closed in 2001, unable to compete with larger manufacturers in countries such as China and Japan, the smaller company still trades today, and a number of other small specialist brass instrument firms specialising in a single instrument have also opened over the last 30 years.

Professor David Smith said: "Artisanal or craft-based occupations employing small-scale speciality production are not normally associated with innovation. However, the key here was the focus on a specialism and using skills to create quality products which met customer needs, not scale or mass production. The smaller firm innovated by thinking carefully about the talent it recruited, and built up an international reputation through personal networks – much easier now through the Internet.

"The study demonstrates that artisanal knowledge and traditional working practices, far from impeding innovation, can actually facilitate it. Contrary to general expectations, craft-based firms were found to be active and successful in undertaking innovation. The relatively narrow focus of such firms facilitated a high degree of specialisation and close contact with the specific market niches, allowing them to survive despite the widespread adoption of industrial production methods."

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Nottingham Trent University
Nottingham Trent University’s five-year strategic plan Creating the University of the Future has five main ambitions: Creating Opportunity, Valuing Ideas, Enriching Society, Connecting Globally, and Empowering People.

The Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education was awarded to Nottingham Trent University in November 2015. It is the highest national honour for a UK university and recognises the institution’s world-class research. Pioneering projects to improve weapons and explosives detection in luggage, enable safer production of powdered infant formula, and combat food fraud, led to the prestigious award.

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