This series sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences features notable humanities and social sciences researchers with smart ideas for a better tomorrow. This month, we spoke with Louis Raymond, Professor Emeritus at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.
Louis Raymond is a pioneer in the study of management information systems for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In addition to being a professor emeritus, he is an associate professor at UQTR’s school of management and is a member of its SME Research Institute. His vision of innovation emphasizes the transfer of knowledge from the university to SMEs.
How did you first develop an interest in information systems for SMEs?
Dr. Raymond: I was in the very first computer science graduating class at Université de Montréal, where I received a bachelor’s degree in 1972 and a master’s in 1973. That event marked the first time in Quebec that computer science emerged as its own independent department, separate from mathematics. It was an early indication that computers were advancing beyond their role as simple adding machines to other applications. Of course, we had no idea back then how prevalent computers would become in our personal and professional lives several decades later!
In the late 1970s, computers started to become more commonplace in very large businesses as calculation or transaction management tools. They gradually evolved into the information systems we have today, which generate and analyze data that is critical for decision making. Numerous theories were developed to support the use of these systems in large enterprises, but they didn’t necessarily apply to SMEs. I was one of the first researchers to explore these issues specifically for small enterprises and provide models that reflected their reality. I’m also very gratified to see that my thesis paper, published in MIS Quarterly in 1985, is still being quoted today.
Your work sparked your interest in innovation. How is that concept defined in university research?
Dr. Raymond: This may come as a surprise to some, but the scientific community hasn’t reached a consensus on how to define innovation. It’s an umbrella term for various realities. That’s why the first thing you read in a scientific article is a definition of the type of innovation being discussed. It can be incremental, involving a series of small improvements, or radical, bringing a totally innovative product to market. It can also refer to internal changes within a company that don’t necessarily lead to new products or services being created. This is called process or organizational innovation, which aims to improve business efficiency. As a result, innovation research starts with clearly conceptualizing what will be studied in order to formulate a research topic that can be observed, measured, compared and so forth.
So there is a certain subjectivity in innovation research, based on the researchers’ vision and entrepreneurs’ interests. Has this affected the way theoretical models are developed?
Dr. Raymond: Absolutely. Innovation theory has evolved a lot over the years. At first, researchers paid much more attention to radical innovation, but nowadays, incremental innovation is popular – simply because it was found to be equally, if not more, profitable for many businesses. Similarly, we used to think innovation was mostly about bringing new products to market, and the organizational and process aspect was neglected. For example, IBM’s launch of the Selectric electric typewriter was the epitome of his type of progress. With this radical innovation, the company dominated the typewriter market for a quarter-century after its launch in 1961. It was spectacular.
But how can this be applied to manufacturing SMEs? Over the last 40 years, I have worked extensively with small manufacturing businesses such as machine shops. Instead of creating products, they offer their production capacity. For them, innovation consists first and foremost of improving their skills and capacity. For example, learning to create metal parts with plastic inserts involves combining two very different technologies. That’s what it comes down to.
Innovation research has also become multidisciplinary, since the challenges in the field involve many different disciplines. I’m interested in information systems, but those challenges are no longer confined to information technology. They involve fields like human resources and marketing, so I have to collaborate with researchers from disciplines such as industrial psychology or sociology. On a personal level, I think these collaborations have really helped me grow as a researcher and expand my horizons beyond my immediate field of research.
What is the university’s role in innovation learning, and how should it interact with businesses?
Dr. Raymond: I think its role directly aligns with the university’s third mission, which is community service. Our research does need to advance theoretical knowledge, but it’s not just about writing brilliant scientific articles. That knowledge must be transferred to businesses or support the development of better public policy. For example, a huge number of government programs rely on R&D support to stimulate innovation, yet university research shows that R&D is not a reliable determining factor of innovation. Many highly innovative SMEs don’t conduct R&D in the true sense of the term. Businesses are increasingly turning to open innovation, in which partners, or even competitors, collaborate on a project. University research needs to help adapt public policy to these new realities.
As for the relationship between the university and businesses, it’s twofold. Our research requires us to go out into the field and talk to entrepreneurs and factory managers. That’s where we get our material. In turn, of course, we want our findings to help them solve problems, make strategic decisions and above all, innovate. It’s a two-way relationship. For example, at UQTR, we offer a joint doctoral program with Université de Sherbrooke in which theses must address and help solve a problem observed in the field. Explaining and proposing solutions to real-world problems involves balancing theory and practice.
Do you think that university-generated knowledge is being efficiently transferred to businesses and especially to SMEs?
Dr. Raymond: Knowledge transfer is a real stumbling block. Initially, the researcher’s job is more about generating knowledge than transferring it. For a transfer to be successful, it requires effective relay mechanisms, such as consultants, scientific journalists or organizations like CEFRIO. At the SME Research Institute, we regularly organize seminars for entrepreneurs. We also created the PDG® diagnostic tool, which uses one of the world’s largest SME databases to help businesses evaluate their performance and vulnerability within mere hours. These are good examples of the constructive role we can play with entrepreneurs.
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