Innovation Cultivation: Interview with Ric Parker

When you are charged with cultivating innovation for one of the world's most prestigious engineering organisations, you need to be sure that you're able to match bright ideas with customer needs.

This is exactly the role Ric Parker, director of research and technology at Rolls-Royce, has been doing since 2001. So what can he tell the rest us about turning bright ideas in to business success?

"Innovation is not just about technology," he said. "Innovation is the entire process of taking an idea and turning it into a successful product. While it is great having a room full of bright people coming up with ideas, unless a company can turn those ideas into successful products, it is a waste of time."

Rolls Royce has become synonymous with good design and quality engineering and this is something Parker is keen to proliferate throughout UK industry. While the UK might well have lost much manufacturing overseas in the last few decades, the design and innovation has stayed largely onshore.

"I passionately believe innovation is vital for the UK if we are going to succeed as a nation," he said. "If you copy the rest of the world you can only ever be number two at best, but if you want to be number one then you must innovate to stay ahead of the competition."

So how does a firm with such a rich R&D heritage perpetuate commercially viable innovations?

"There are two important factors the whole company follow: innovation and the customer," he said. "If you get these two things right – satisfying customer needs using innovative ideas – then you will succeed. You'll find this DNA within everyone at Rolls Royce.

"Giving a customer an innovative idea that isn't reliable, doesn't work or doesn't arrive on time is not good business."

What is surprising, perhaps, are the sources that Parker, and Rolls Royce, use to find innovation. It uses close customer relationships to feedback information and to drive future technological development and direction. In addition, it invites innovation to happen in every aspect of its business. It is not the sole responsibility of engineers to innovate and should in fact happen within every department of its business to ultimately deliver better products and services.

But it also goes a step further and not just invites, but practically insists, that its supply chain is of the same mindset. Its suppliers must also continually innovate, and show incremental improvements that lead to customer benefit.

"The idea that you have single group of bright boffins, and those are the people that will innovate, is rather old fashioned," said Parker. "Innovation can come from anywhere – inside an organisation, in R&D centres, or in the supply chain. Increasingly being competitive is about making the whole supply chain competitive, and that means it needs to be innovative. Ensuring the supply chain is full of ideas and is able to bring them to the fore is vital.

"Innovation is the entire chain of taking an idea, turning it in to a successful product and creating wealth."

"Customers too will also have ideas. Even if they might not know how to turn them in to products, they can tell you what they would like. It is wise for companies to tap in to these external sources to help bring about new ideas of where you can improve."

It is this philosophy that sees Rolls Royce integrate its 'ideas people' with more constrained engineers. It is a delicate and challenging balance of allowing those creative individuals the freedom to innovate while at the same time, given the highly regulated and safety imperative nature of its business, having engineers in place to deliver the quality and reliability needed.

"The Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is an example of where bright people are separated to do the clever stuff, and everyone else in the business gets on with the day to day products," said Parker. "We tend not to do that and we keep our innovators in amongst the people delivering to customers, so they understand the real problems and issues."

Pace of innovation

There is no doubt, the world demands more innovation, faster. It doesn't seem to matter if it is Rolls Royce or a start up, product development cycles are being squeezed in almost every industry. So should companies feel the need to release new products more frequently?

"It is important to understand the difference between invention and innovation," explained Parker. "The big leaps forward often don't happen in one big innovative step. It's not one primary technology but instead usually takes lots of ancillary technologies. It is often these ancillary technologies that are vital and these have to keep pace.

"Invention is that flash of genius without which you don't get the new ideas, products and processes for the future. But innovation is the entire chain of taking an idea and turning it in to a successful product and ultimately creating wealth. That is the vital difference."

Ric Parker

Ric Parker is director of research and technology at Rolls Royce. He graduated from Imperial College London in Physics and has also received a distinction on completion of his MBA at Loughborough University. In 2013 he was also awarded a CBE for services to engineering.

Since he joined Rolls Royce in 1978 and has held various positions within the business including chief of composites and ceramics, and then manager of compressor systems, and has been appointed director of research and technology for the whole group since 2001. He is now responsible for the direction and coordination of all Rolls Royce research and technology programs across the globe.