This thesis describes a sociocultural study which addresses the question of how New Product Development (NPD) practices in small and medium-sized manufacturing enterprises (SMEs) are influenced by obscure practices, deployed to meet emerging challenges that enable SMEs to remain relevant to their markets. Prior research in this area has assumed that a company’s innovation potential can be objectively explained by looking at critical factors such as peoples’ skills (e.g. leadership), company resources, capabilities, and its external orientation. However important, these variance-based approaches are generally discussed in isolation from the dynamic and idiosyncratic contexts where they emerge (such as the NPD process). As a result they fail to provide a holistic view of the phenomena that promote agility and innovation. This study’s purpose was to develop a methodological approach to explicate obscurity in SMEs’ innovation practices. To achieve this, the study employed a design-led qualitative research strategy to bring to the forefront the underlying contextual, situational and relational phenomena impacting a common core practice in manufacturing SMEs, their NPD process. The aim was to increase our knowledge of the notion of obscure practices in their effort to meet their emerging challenges. The research began by developing a theoretical model to consolidate ideas derived from: 1.Strategic management variance literature, which led to a multi-level theoretical framework (people, firm, and external levels). 2. Models of NPD processes, which led to the adoption of a generic process-model (Initiation, Development and Implementation) used as periods to study organisational practices. 3. Sociocultural literature, which led to the adoption of Activity Theory (AT) to guide analysis of NPD activities. The study approached its methodology in order to meet two key requirements. With regards to the sensitivities of the SME context (such as the disruption to participants’ day to day practices), the study developed a design-led process-mapping tool for data collection that provided rich insights in an engaging and fast way, whilst it allowed the triangulation and visualisation of the data, which was collected from staff members across different expertise and positions. In addition, an Activity Theory framework was adopted as a means to analyse the data and make sense of its complexity in line with the need to capture multi-level phenomena across different periods of the NPD process. The thesis provides a number of contributions to contemporary design research and beyond. First, it demonstrates the value of integrating variance and process-based research approaches and the richness of insights gained by applying them to organisational settings. Second, it argues for the usefulness of ‘obscurity’ as a term to describe the not-well-articulated practices that take place in the day-to-day business, as opposed to terms such as hidden, invisible, silent, and/or tacit. Third, it shows the value of the adopted research method (i.e. the Pytheas tool), to surface obscurity in innovation practices in a non-prescriptive, fast and engaging way by enabling participants to self-reflect on their own practices and by visualising organisational contexts in such a way that the richness and the depth of the practices can be captured and better appreciated. Consequently, the contributions of the study primarily concern design practitioners and strategists who need to find ways to better construe the organisational settings to which they are called to offer their expertise. Businesses may also benefit by this method as it provides a platform through which members can develop a greater awareness of their respective strengths and weaknesses and, through the visualised outcomes, it offers a legacy that businesses can use, revisit and refer to during their efforts to achieve agility and increase their innovation potential.
|Publication status||In preparation - Jun 2015|