Bring the garage back into the firm

“What are the consequences and implications of technological change, digital disruption and blurring industry boundaries for an established firm?” With a background in strategy, technology and innovation, Fredrik Hacklin has a keen interest in strategic entrepreneurship, lying at the intersection of these fields. He recently joined Vlerick as Professor of Entrepreneurship.

Beyond industry focus

One of the key themes in Fredrik’s area of expertise is industry convergence, the phenomenon of blurring industry boundaries resulting in increased competition between players from previously different industries and ecosystems.

“I believe this phenomenon is real,” he says. “We’ve seen how a successful company like Nokia has been forced out of the mobile phone market by entrants from other industries, such as Apple, and it’s happening in other markets as we speak – just look at the financial services or pharma sector, for example. Now, many of the strategic tools and frameworks that are used and taught at business schools – think value chain, strategic positioning, five forces, and so on – rely on the implicit assumption of clearly defined industry boundaries. Against this background, you could argue that many of our traditional models increasingly fall short in providing reliable advice to firms faced by the ambiguity of converging industries. We need to critically reconsider our tools and develop new concepts and theories that better explain what’s happening around us.”

Back to the garage

Entrepreneurial research tends to focus on companies started up by visionary entrepreneurs in their proverbial garage that went on to become success stories, such as Google, Airbnb and Tesla. All this has been tremendously important for shaping our understanding on the entrepreneurial process, but there is still a lot of wealth created by large and established players. And while large incumbents do have many disadvantages compared to agile start-ups, they also have several advantages: a much larger resource base and a huge pool of knowledge. Fredrik believes we should help them better capitalise on these assets.

“Recently I’ve been working with a leading European chemicals manufacturer who wanted to make its innovation strategy more entrepreneurial and agile. Like many incumbent companies, it has a rather formal and rigorous innovation process, with a pipeline, stage-gates and incubation phases, following strict criteria. But we also noticed that there was a lot of informal innovation going on. Now, do you treat this as a discipline issue — or do you choose to see this as an asset? Google, for one, is a famous example of a company that encourages its people to use 20% of their time to do something else. This is not only because of altruism, but also out of quite a utilitarian rationale: it has recognised the innovation potential of this sort of activities. What interests me is how we can help established companies leverage informal activities more systematically, and at a larger scale. Can we develop processes or entire organisational models to innovate through resourcefulness and improvisation rather than by following a pre-established plan? How can we bring the garage mentality back into established firms?”

Business model innovation

In their pursuit of becoming more agile, another avenue that established firms have come to explore is the ever-increasing prominence of business model innovation. In our rapidly changing environment, there is growing consensus on the need for incumbents not only to innovate their products and technologies, but also their value creation and capturing logic. But oftentimes, that is easier said than done, as Fredrik explains: “Most companies acknowledge they should be doing this, have read all the books, done the canvas, but are left struggling with the implementation. How do you move from manufacturing and selling products to providing services? Should you implement your new business model and run it alongside your old one? Should you change your core model into something new? How do you transition from one model to another? In short: what are the strategies for business model innovation?”

From management for techies to technology for managers

What does he hope to achieve? “I want to continue help established firms in becoming better at reinventing themselves and turning into more entrepreneurial, agile organisations,” he says. “In so doing, there is a range of opportunities for further developing an exciting research agenda in tight interconnection with advancing what we can offer to the market,” he explains. “Also, much of what business schools have been doing, and rather well, is providing management education for technical profiles. But given that technology has become so ubiquitous in daily business, we need to explore turning the cake upside down – could we also provide more tech education for general managers and the boardroom? Business leaders would benefit from being better prepared to understand the impact of technology by providing them with a more solid base of, say, the fundamentals behind digitalisation, or the potential of big data analytics.” And he adds: “I hope to be part of building the School, helping to even further our reach with new offerings and programmes, perhaps by working with new types of companies and acquiring new partners.”

Practice what we preach

Having spent most of his career so far at the intersection of academia and practice, working closely with companies, Vlerick with its high-quality academic and actionable thought leadership seemed to provide the ideal platform for Fredrik to further develop along this path. “Its high ranking and solid reputation, its location at the heart of Europe and its growth ambitions obviously appealed to me, but I was particularly impressed by the people I’ve met, the team spirit and culture at the School. The entrepreneurial mindset is not only apparent in the way it positions itself in the market and how its educational offerings are developed, but particularly also in how we organise ourselves internally. We practice what we preach. And I feel it’s a good time to be joining: there is a sense of wanting to achieve, being on the move.”

Work hard, play hard

Fredrik is clearly brimming with ambition and enthusiasm. What drives him? “Professionally, I’m inspired by sharp minds, talented colleagues and great ideas. You know the saying work hard, play hard? If you’re fortunate enough to be able to work in an environment where people combine ambition and professionalism with a laid-back attitude and a good sense of humour, than I believe it can be achieved.” And personally? “Spicy food and strong coffee,” he says, smiling.

Profile
  • Managing Director, Corporate Innovation Lab, Switzerland
  • Associate Professor, ETH Zurich, Switzerland
  • Fellow, Harvard University, USA (2014-2015)
  • Visiting faculty, Imperial College Business School, UK; ESMT Berlin, Germany; Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan (2015-2016); and Keio University, Japan (2012-2014)
  • Assistant Professor, ETH Zurich, Switzerland (2009-2016)
  • Strategy consultant, Booz Allen Hamilton, Switzerland (2007-2009)
  • Visiting scholar, Stanford University, USA (2006)
  • Ph.D. in Management, ETH Zurich, Switzerland (2002-2006)

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