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Innovating under pressure: the influence of soft factors in the diffusion of novel technologies

Posted: 14 October 2016 | | No comments yet

Novel food processing technologies have the potential to improve or replace existing processes, but the diffusion of these innovations is not straightforward…

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Novel food processing technologies have the potential to improve or replace existing processes, but the diffusion of these innovations is not straightforward. Besides obvious factors such as costs and regulations we have found that soft aspects influence the spreading of novel food processing technologies. According to stakeholders from the food industry, soft aspects such as individual behaviour as well as communication between stakeholders within the food production chain are crucial factors for the implementation of innovations.

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Valorisation and implementation of novel technologies is relevant to science, industry and also governments. The acceleration of the market introduction of innovative technologies has benefits, not only for the producing firms but for the economy at large. Nonetheless, technological innovations in the food sector are generally not easily adopted. To investigate which factors influence the diffusion process of novel technologies we looked at the mild preservation technologies of HPP and PEF (see box 1). 

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These technologies have several advantages – notably, being environmentally friendly compared to conventional heat preservation, as well as able to preserve food quality and extending the microbiological shelf life without using chemical additives1. Overall, these technologies are relatively well established yet they are not widely applied.

The question is: why?

In order to answer that question, 20 stakeholders from within and around the food production chain in the Netherlands were interviewed. Three respondents were employed in retail; three in machinery production; six in the food industry; two in governmental institutions; two in sector organisations; two in financial institutions; one in research and one respondent was employed in a consumer organisation. Interview questions were based on existing literature as well as the The Diffusion of Innovation theory by Rogers2.

High Pressure Preservation (HPP) and Pulsed Electric Fields (PEF) HPP is a mild processing technology that can be used for the preservation of food products. The product is subjected to pressures up to 700MPa that inactivate most vegetative microorganisms by damaging cell components such as cell membranes while preserving the fresh characteristics of a product. PEF too is used for preservation objectives by using electrical impulses that are sent through the product, thereby damaging cell components and inactivating most micro-organisms and keeping the fresh properties of the product. HPP for pasteurisation of fresh products is already applied in industry for high value products, while PEF for preservation has a few industrial applications, mainly for fruit juices1.

Elements influencing the diffusion of innovation

Despite the fact that each interviewee had a different starting point and perspective (given their individual background), the main characteristics of the diffusion of novel technology in the food sector emerged clearly from the data. The following four main elements influencing this diffusion process emerged:

  1. The competitiveness of the sector
  2. The uncertainty associated with innovations
  3. The role of structures and organisations
  4. The role of the individual.

These elements were often discussed in relation to both their hard and soft aspects. Hard aspects refer to factual or impersonal sides of an object, argument or process, e.g. cost-benefit considerations. While soft aspects refer more to the personal and emotional sides of the diffusion process, such as passion or fear. The four main elements will be discussed briefly. 

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Sectoral aspects

Interviewees characterise the food sector as competitive and conservative, mainly due to hard aspects such as the focus on price. In addition, the emphasis in the interviews lies on the chain structure in the food production industry, which induces interdependencies and power differences. In particular, retail is considered to play a key role in the production chain, acting as a gate keeper of innovations. These sectoral aspects put pressure on the other elements. Due to the focus on costs and benefits, hard aspects become more prominent than soft elements. The focus on price throughout the chain induces low profit margins. In turn, low margins induce a need for structures in organisations, making it more reasonable to optimise current processes than to take the risk of innovating. This is quite straight-forward, nevertheless, respondents consider the structure of the food industry to be a significant barrier to the diffusion of innovations:

“For innovation I think structures are very bad. I have never heard anything decent coming from it. Yes, a nice structure on how to stick a price-tag correctly, that level, but real innovation? Something new, something cool? Surely that does not come from structures”.

– Product Developer.

The innovation

Innovation can mean uncertainty: Uncertainty regarding hard aspects such as costs and still greater uncertainty about the benefits. In addition, there is uncertainty that touches upon soft aspects, such as apprehension of change or newness. Costs and benefits are naturally of interest to organisations, but in addition soft aspects appear to play a critical role within an organisational culture, i.e. personal ambitions versus preferences for security and continuity.

Another key aspect of innovation and its diffusion seems to be the connection with consumer preferences or trends. The consumer appears to be interested in the properties resulting from the technology rather than the technological details themselves, as illustrated by the following quote.

“The consumer does not ask for HPP. It only asks for a property, which you could, possibly, achieve with HPP. I think it is an illusion to make consumers scream for HPP, ‘I want HPP’, because they don’t, they don’t want increased shelf life…they just want tasty, healthy, cheap products”.

– Sales Representative at a technology producer.

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Organisations

The production chain classically focuses on organisations as main stakeholders. However, the interviews given in this article indicate that individuals have a vast impact on the diffusion of innovations throughout the chain. Decision-making within organisations is perceived to be based on such hard aspects as costs and benefits, vested interests or logistical issues. Nonetheless, interviewees often mention the importance of soft aspects such as intraorganisational relations and culture, as previously mentioned. Here, explicit company values such as ambition to innovate are relevant, but also implicit values such as personal resistance to change and newness, or apprehension to approach superiors with ideas, influence the diffusion and acceptance of innovative ideas.

“People are optimising what they do, keeping what they have. So every renewal, and every innovation is a kind of renewal on a combination of issues, which leads to changes and people naturally do not like that”.

– Product Developer.

Individual

Individuals appear to have a strong influence on the diffusion process. The interviewees describe a special kind of individual; a passionate individual who takes the role of being the thriving power behind the innovation. This individual pushes against the rigid structures of rationality and the aversion to ‘new’. They are not necessarily connected to a specific function or type of stakeholder, but are characterised by persistence and the capability of ‘seeing’ opportunities and potentially useful connections. In addition, individuals form personal connections – for collaboration between companies or organisations a decisive factor can be a personal click.

“There are many individualistic things in (the innovation process), which have nothing to do with science, consumer insights or business; just, what people think. I think it is almost shocking how individual it is, how character dependent”.

– Product developer.

Promotors and barriers

In addition several promoters and barriers were identified, from which recommendations for improving the innovation adoption process can be formulated.

Promoting factors can be grouped around four main themes:

1. Added Value

A clear added value convinces partners in the chain and reduces the uncertainty of innovating. This added value is different for different parties. The distribution of the technology through the food chain can be enhanced by clearly communicating that mild preservation technologies, for example, mean an enlarged area of possible distribution, or enable a significant reduction of losses for retailers. They also enable clean-label products of high quality to be accessible for consumers – in literature this is referred to as linking distal – to proximal determinants3.

2. Networks and Interaction

It is not a particularly new insight that networks and interaction contribute to innovation4. However, this research shows that informal networks and interactions too are very valuable and more attention can be paid to this. Meetings between people are central, and this can be within the company in the form of Friday afternoon drinks, fun events, lectures etc. as well as between organisations from different sectors. One idea is to organise events around specific themes, excursions or fairs.

3. Passionate individuals

Motivated individuals with a passion for the innovation can make a difference within an organisation, as well as promote cooperation between organisations. The spreading of innovations can be facilitated by creating space for people who want an innovation to succeed from personal conviction. This could be achieved, for example, during performance evaluations, by putting emphasis on what kind of valuable activities have been done, instead of evaluations solely based on efficiency targets. This could also be stimulated by sector associations or trade unions.

“Mild preservation technologies are potentially very interesting for innovation in the food industry”

4. Compatibility with consumer trends

The emphasis on competition within the food sector is reflected by the focus on low prices and unbalanced power distributions. However, the final purchasing power lies with the consumer. By clearly connecting the innovation to consumer wishes, barriers within the chain can be overcome. It is difficult to stay in touch with the consumer, since the consumer is not interested in new technologies5 .

It is therefore recommended to symbolise the technology in a small and recognisable logo or short text that can be placed on the product packaging. This way the technology is not hidden and those who are interested can find more detailed information on the mechanism and effects of the technology. The logo or text could refer to a website where the technology is explained with clear and recognisable examples, preferably in a story-like format. HPP is often associated with ocean diving, which can be a positive metaphor. For PEF, however, it can be more difficult to find an equally positive comparison, due to its association with electricity.

Factors perceived as posing a barrier to the successful diffusion of an innovation, too, can be grouped around four themes:

1. Rigid structures

Rigid structures in a sector focused on price, mean that efficient processes are of great importance. Rigid structures within companies are aimed at efficiency, but innovation is never efficient (especially at the start). It is therefore important to create space for ideas that do not directly fit current procedures or processes.

2. Negative consumer perception

The negative reactions of consumers have been fatal to several food technologies and are therefore feared by the industry. For HPP this is unjustified, as consumers perceive the technology as friendly, understandable and harmless. For PEF, however, the overall picture is a bit more complicated5.

3. High costs

Mild preservation technology is expensive. The high costs of novel preservation technologies initially form a barrier1. The tension between costs, benefits and thus risks connected to innovations, play an important role in the gap to market introduction. Machinery contractors that function as so-called tolling agents, and also contracting work, can lower this initial barrier.

4. Regulations

Unclear regulations make it difficult to estimate which requirements must be met and thus which costs are involved. Respondents perceive current regulations to lag behind technological innovation and thereby enhance uncertainty, which is, in turn, considered to pose a barrier to the diffusion of innovation.

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Conclusion

Mild preservation technologies are potentially very interesting for innovation in the food industry. We showed that the diffusion of this innovation and the implementation of technologies such as HPP and PEF is not always an obvious process. The process is influenced by hard and soft aspects that include the characteristics of the food sector; the uncertainty associated with innovation; the role of structures and organisations, as well as the role of individuals. In our evaluation of the innovation in the Dutch food production chain, we recognised that in addition to hard aspects such as the costs of the innovation, soft aspects are at least as important. A passionate individual can make the difference by pulling an innovation through the initial resistance. Based on the research, we defined recommendations to enhance the innovation adoption process, in which the role of consumers is very important. Research showed that consumer perception is crucial for adoption of technological innovations, where added value for the consumer and a transparent communication of the technology is of greatest importance.

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References

1. Tokuşoğlu, Ö. and Swanson, B.G. Improving Food Quality with Novel Food Processing Technologies. s.l. : CRC Press, 2014

2. Rogers, E. M. Diffusion of Innovations. 5th. New York : The Free Press, 2003

3. A. Ronteltap, J.C.M. van Trijp, R.J. Renes, L.J. Frewer. Consumer acceptance of technology-based food innovations: Lessons for the future of nutrigenomics. Appetite. 2007, Vol. 1, 49, pp. 1-17

4. Kastelle, T., & Steen, J. Networks of Innovation. [book auth.] M. Dodgson, D. M. Gann and N. Phillips. Handbook of Innovation Management. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 102-120

5. Consumers’ perceptions of HPP and PEF food products. Sonne, A.-M., Grunert, K. G., Olsen, N. V., Granli, B.-S., Szabó, E., & Banati, D. 1, 2012, British Food Journal, Vol. 114, pp. 85 – 107.

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