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Published: November 29, 2005

 
 

Money Isn’t Everything

Lavish R&D budgets don’t guarantee performance. A new Booz Allen Hamilton study of the world’s 1,000 biggest spenders reveals the value of an innovation dollar — and the basics of a better strategy.

The quest for innovation has long been a faith-based initiative: Spend more, and profit will come. Are you losing out to nimbler competitors? On the high-cost end of globalization? Is your sales growth flattening? Are your margins narrowing? Want to prove to Wall Street you’re serious about growth? Don’t worry; just increase the R&D budget. New products or services will emerge that make the difference — won’t they?

Not so fast. The results of our recent study of the Booz Allen Hamilton Global Innovation 1000 — the 1,000 publicly held companies from around the world that spent the most on research and development in 2004 — may provoke a crisis of faith. The study, which we believe is the most comprehensive effort to date to assess the influence of R&D on corporate performance, suggests that nonmonetary factors may be the most important drivers of a company’s return on innovation investment (ROI2). The major findings:

Money doesn’t buy results. There is no relationship between R&D spending and the primary measures of economic or corporate success, such as growth, enterprise profitability, and shareholder return.

Size matters. Scale leads to advantage. Larger organizations can spend a smaller proportion of revenue on R&D than can smaller organizations, and take no discernible performance hit.

You can be too rich or too thin. Spending more does not necessarily help, but spending too little will hurt.

There isn’t clarity on how much is enough. Instead of clustering into any coherent pattern, R&D budget levels vary substantially, even within industries. This suggests that no single approach to spending money on innovation development is universally recognized as the most effective strategy.

It’s the process, not the pocketbook. Superior results, in most cases, seem to be a function of the quality of an organization’s innovation process — the bets it makes and how it pursues them — rather than the magnitude of its innovation spending.

Collaboration is key. The link between spending and performance tends to be strongest in those areas most under the control of the R&D silo, such as product design, and weakest in those areas where cross-functional collaboration is most difficult, such as commercialization.

These findings conjure up familiar images of frustration. Hardworking R&D teams invest time and money in the wrong projects; manufacturing, marketing, and sales drop the ball on winning products and services; and senior executives and policymakers simply throw more money at research and development in the mistaken belief that it will make a difference. When it comes to innovation investment, it appears that in many cases, less may be more.

Innovation’s New Context
The myth that higher R&D spend translates into competitive advantage has been around for decades, but it appears to be particularly strong now. Pick up any business magazine or newspaper. You’ll find ample evidence of the belief in the effectiveness of larger budgets, for both corporate and national competitiveness:

  • “U.S. spending on R&D will also have to increase if the country wants to remain technologically dominant.” —Fortune, July 2005
  • “We need at NEC to increase our R&D spending by as much as 50 percent to keep ahead of the competition.” —NEC Corporation (#41 on the list of 1000) senior vice president, quoted in The Age, July 2005
  • “The European Commission will today appeal to E.U. countries to increase spending on research and development, or face being out-paced by competitors such as China.” —Financial Times, July 2005
  • “[Yahoo] spends as heavily on product development and R&D as Google and Microsoft…falling behind in this arms race would spell big trouble.” —Fortune, August 2005
 
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Resources

  1. Joris Beerens, Thomas Goldbrunner, Richard Hauser, and Georg List, “Mastering the Innovation Challenge: Results of the Booz Allen Hamilton European Innovation Survey,” a Booz Allen Hamilton white paper, www.boozallen.com: This 2005 study pinpoints both the ambitious innovation targets that European innovators have set — and their concerns that their organizations may not be up to the challenge.
  2. Henry William Chesbrough, Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology (Harvard Business School Press, 2003): Harvard’s Professor Chesbrough proposes collaborative, transparent innovation practices that deliver improved performance by opening the corporation to outside thinking from vendors, academics, and investors.
  3. Peter Coy with Ben Elgin, Amy Barrett, and Gail Edmondson, “The Search for Tomorrow,” Business Week, October 11, 2004: A new index that examines corporate R&D and capital spending and ranks all U.S. companies in the S&P 500 plus 700 non-U.S. companies on the basis of their R&D and capital investment spending. Click here.
  4. Alexander Kandybin and Martin Kihn, “Raising Your Return on Innovation Investment,” s+b, Summer 2004: Introduces the concept of the innovation effectiveness curve. Click here.
  5. Robert W. Lane, speech given at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, April 23, 2003: Describes how Deere aligned its innovation strategy with customer priorities. A transcript is available. Transcript available here.
  6. Erick Schonfeld, “Outsourcing Innovation,” Business 2.0 Web site, May 30, 2003: Contains the Larry Huston quote and a description of P&G’s approach. Click here.
  7. Special Report: R&D ’04, MIT Technology Review, December 1, 2004: Ranks the top 150 R&D spenders in 2003 based on an innovation index that takes into account total spend, spending growth, and R&D-to-sales ratio. Click here.
  8. The 2004 R&D Scoreboard: The Top 700 U.K. and 700 International Companies by R&D Investment, Parts I and II, U.K. Department of Trade and Industry: This study provides detailed demographics and claims a link between R&D and sales performance that our study did not detect. Click here.
 
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