Despite France having lots of talent and potential, firms are apparently lagging behind when it comes to practical innovation. French company cultures are often ill-suited to innovation and the support tools available are not easy to use.

Innovation: French firms need more drive

In France firms are increasingly starting to embrace innovation, but it is only rarely a major area in its own right at the company. A study* carried out by the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) reveals that although “62% of company employees in the private sector have been impacted in the last five years by one or more digitally-oriented  innovations”, innovation is very rarely a major component of business strategy. Management still tends to think of innovation in terms of ‘technological disruption’ that might turn a company’s working practices upside down to no good effect.  Many employers still equate innovation with risk, viewing it as something difficult to control rather than as a real opportunity to take the business forward. Obtaining the finance for an innovation project can also prove a hard slog. Some 36% of those who responded to the survey had wanted to obtain funding but said that getting the necessary paperwork together was a complicated task, while 31% said it was hard to find the right person to talk to about their idea. Nevertheless, despite these sorts of obstacles, the survey revealed a real demand from employees: ″76% of all working people polled hoped that their firm would encourage them to be more innovative on a daily basis.″ Innovation certainly carries some risk, and failure is always a possibility, but you have to put things in context and see it as a learning experience. It is just as important to embark on innovation as to succeed, the Paris Chamber of Commerce report suggests, underlining: “Some 60% of private sector employees believe that innovation is vital to job creation.″

Getting competitiveness hubs to work better

Close to half of all small or medium-sized businesses in France have not taken any innovative steps in the last two years. There has been progress recently in government policy, but the emphasis is largely – too much so – on high-tech while “80% [of innovations] are in the social, organisational, commercial, marketing or financial fields, the report points out. In fact the Paris region has huge potential for innovation.  The Île-de-France (Greater Paris) region has a number of ‘competitiveness hubs’ which can make the human, financial, technology and infrastructure resources available to firms that want to break new ground. Now the CCI is promoting the ‘Grand Paris’ (Greater Paris) project to create a ″network of eco-systems fostering innovation″ which will be able to meet firms’ needs. Perhaps what is needed is a push from the Greater Paris authorities to drive innovation projects, in particular by improving relations between the different hubs and encouraging them to work together in partnership: ″40% of the firms in Île-de-France which have abandoned their innovation projects in the last two years have done so because of a lack of partners″, says the report, suggesting that support mechanisms are needed so that those with innovation expertise can find a market for their skills.  Competition hubs provide vital support for developing companies but ″only one in four of the projects being developed at one of the hubs actually results in concrete innovation″. Moreover, in the Greater Paris region the hubs are in touch with very few of the 800,000 businesses established there. ″Only 14% of the companies in Île-de-France that have embarked on an innovation drive during the last two years are in regular contact with a competitiveness hub.″ 

Looking for information, reorganising ... companies testing the water

Sifting through the fifty or so interviews conducted for the report reveals that many of the respondents have been making some effort to inject a dose of innovation into the way their company works. Many French managers and staff are becoming more open to what is happening in the wider world, for instance going on ‘Learning Expeditions’. And French businesses are now making much greater efforts to look for information – searching for market data, following technology tracking sites, reading surveys, etc. And aside from the search for information, companies are also changing their recruitment strategies: it is now creative people rather than qualified technology buffs who are in demand.  Company teams are being reorganised and many firms now have a unit dedicated exclusively to innovation development. However, the CCI stresses that the involvement of top management – which alone has the power to push innovation projects all the way – is vital. Setting aside time for company staff to think about digital strategies is another step that many companies have taken. In addition, they feel they should adjust their working methods so as to foster innovation by setting up working groups and taking a different approach to managing large projects. All these different measures are targeted on the same goal – coming up with new products, new business models, new sales approaches and winning new markets. The challenge of innovation is certainly one that France will have to pick up if the country is to improve its competitiveness on the world scene.

*The report is based on some 50 interviews with company bosses, a statistical survey carried out among 6,000 firms, and conversations with public sector experts.

By Anthéa Delpuech