Companies can miss the chance to innovate because they are slow to react to new opportunities. An EU-funded project is developing software tools that will help businesses make faster and more robust decisions.
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A soft drinks company wants to grow its market for made-to-order drinks. A manufacturer of pumps seeks to expand its range of products. A maker of laundry drying machines wants to explore new ways to offer drying services.
What all these have in common is the need to understand the risks that come with innovation before taking a step into new business territory. And that’s what the EU-funded FLEXINET project is helping them to do.
“There are two threads to such decision-making,” says Bob Young of Loughborough University, who is coordinating the project. “There’s the business decision-making, or what we call developing the business models – how we should operate our business to be most effective. And then in parallel there’s the question of how do we put a global production network together most effectively to satisfy the requirement for this new product idea?”
Tools for knowledge
The three companies – Customdrinks in Spain, KSB in Germany and Indesit in Italy – are working with 10 academic and software partners to come up with software tools that will not only help them make robust decisions, but also have the potential to be commercialised and offered as a service to other businesses.
“One of the issues that they all have is there’s lots of knowledge they have in different pockets of the business but it has to come together to be really helpful in making the decisions,” Young explains.
At the heart of FLEXINET is a knowledge base, tailored to each company, that draws together previously dispersed information not only on the internal working of the business, but also the external social, technical, economic, environmental and political factors (collectively known as STEEP) that affect its operation in different markets.
“Working out standards for codifying the knowledge to maximise its cohesion while minimising each company’s configuration effort is one of the major achievements of the project,” Young points out.
Four sets of tools then tie into the knowledge base: a collaboration environment, a set for developing business models, a set for risk analysis and a set for configuring production networks.
Companies using these tools should be able to assess new opportunities more quickly and come to well-founded decisions on what they need to do next. “Efficiency in being able to react, and effectiveness in the quality of your decisions is really what it’s about.”
The three-year project finishes in the summer of 2016 and the partners are planning how to commercialise the service. Some of the tools could be made available separately but the power of FLEXINET comes with the whole system.
“Usually when you make decisions in one area they have an influence on decisions made somewhere else,” says Young. “So the real value of the tools is to use them in combination and to be able to share this common knowledge.”
He sees companies of all sizes being potential subscribers to the service and not only in the manufacturing industry. “It doesn’t matter what kind of business you’re looking at developing, you still need to decide the best way to operate that business.”
In fact, FLEXINET itself is likely to be one of the first beneficiaries. “One of the things we’re probably going to do is to apply our tools to ourselves because that’s really a software business opportunity.”