Entovation International
France: History And Vision In The Knowledge Economy

Debra M. Amidon and Eunika Mercier-Laurent

It was 1989 when the Ministry of Research, Education and Technology embarked upon an 18-month economic development activity to network competencies in the regions of France. The foundation was laid for building a national innovation system with the conclusion of a Roundtable - Managing the Knowledge Assets into the 21st Century:

"If we can agree that the knowledge base of the United States is our most precious resource, then we can begin to manage it more effectively. This requires a re-thinking of how intellectual capital of each sector - education, government and industry - should be developed and applied to the dual goals of the advancement of science and technology, as well as the international competitiveness of our nation." (Amidon, 1987)

The final meeting was the Grand Colloque de Perspective held in Lyon. We now know that the agenda is not only national, but also global in scope. We know that it is not only a matter of enterprise productivity, but prosperity at several economic levels in our society. We know that it effects both industrialized and developing nations alike. We know that the focus on knowledge may not be new, but the establishing a knowledge strategy is the essence of modern management.

France had already enjoyed many technological advances considered the best in the world. Minitel, developed over 20 years ago and now with over 20 million users, was the French Internet for information and services, including transportation reservations. It may have been the first countrywide internet in the world. The country also enjoys several other innovations, such as Concorde (French-British), Airbus, Eurotunnel, Ariane, smart card (Rolland Moreno Bull, 70ties) TGV - the first FAST train (above 200 miles/hour) to link the country with other countries in Europe.

One of the earliest and largest AI projects, Sachem, is an innovative and powerful Blast Furnace (BF) operating support system, designed and developed within the USINOR Group. Embedding the best knowledge of the Group, Sachem analyses in real-time the state of the whole BF and produces recommendation of actions for the operator. It is operational on 3 BFs (3 others in preparation) and the expected benefits are of one euro per metric tons (11 millions produced per year). Contact Francois-Marie LeSaffre (fo.lesaffre@sollac.usinor.com) for more details.

Building upon some of the finest minds in history - Voltaire, Descartes, Sartre, and Beaudelaire - France has a rich knowledge heritage to leverage. Combine this with famous cultural and performing artists - Claude Monet and Gauguin, the country is well suited to capitalize upon the opportunities afforded by a knowledge economy.

ENTOVATION colleagues Jean Marc Le Duc (jean-marc.leduc@mesr.fr) and Eunika Mercier-Laurent (eml@ens-gestion.uvsq.fr) organized a major seminar with the Ministry of Research, Education and Technology - "Visualizing Opportunity in the Knowledge Economy" to an audience of government and industrial leaders, including representatives from Air France, France Telecom, Renault, Thomson and more. This lecture - the first in a series - provided insight into the rationale for shifting the orientation from Information Society to a Knowledge Economy.

Most recently, the Web Pages of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (http://www.premier-ministre.gouv.fr) outline sub-programs raging from new technologies for education and security of information networks to the new cultural poetic for networks. Although focused primarily upon information technology - could help bring the country into the modern knowledge age:

I. New Technology and Communications: This initiative will provide access to information and interactive access to knowledge. It describes the value of teamwork - how to work in groups for common goals. It promotes continuous learning in the enterprise, including the teachers. There are learning programs, such as 'automatic learning' in the home, teaching and pedagogical tools as well as collective cataloging of libraries. It describes the industrialization of 'savoir' with a focus on knowledge being for everyone - 'sans en exclure personne.'

II. Culture: This provides 'nouveaux savoir' with internet access to museums, 'patrimoine culture' and libraries for electronic tourism. It encourages multi-media activities for the press, a knowledge channel on television for bilingual studies in both German and French - originally established in 1995. There are plans to digitalize the archives of French songs and make them available with telecharge capability while still providing for protection of privacy and ownership.

III. Government Administration and Public Services: This provides access to an inventory of administrative procedures with an effort to connect people on the internet to exchange information, e.g., health, social security, use of smart cards, etc. - all in the interest of reducing the use of paper while providing for increased services. There is an effort to switching people form the Minitel system developed 20 years ago to the Internet by the end of 1999. There is recognition of the importance of electronic mail, video-conferencing and telework ways to decrease pollution. There are benefits of regional information systems as well as the modernization of the information system for administration of the government.

IV. Technology of Information Tools: This section provides for electronic courses and Website services for enterprises. It describes the mission of economic information, agents for diffusion of technological information and the use of natural language for workflow. It promotes not the generation of more information that places people on information overload; but rather provides a focus using tools (e.g., with high performance networks, data base access, etc.) to extract pertinent information - organizing the flow of information to the people who have the need to know.

V. Innovation - Industrial and Technological: This initiative focuses on generating growth and employment, encouraging technology transfer, support for innovative people to create enterprises. It provides regional action for the organization of research, especially the technology of information. It provides incentives to develop entrepreneurs, the networking of groups of competencies (e.g., telecommunications) and new competitive services for the Information Society. . There is even an effort to encourage all French enterprises and entrepreneurs to use 'fr' versus 'com' in e-mail addresses to promote a French presence on the World Wide Web.

Concurrently, the business press has begun to feature stories about knowledge management and support conferences on the topic to link people in the 'community of knowledge practice.' Claire Remy has articles on the movement - "Memoire d'Entreprise" and "Capitalisation de connaissances" The November 97 issue of "Consulting: Le Mensuel International du Conseil" features several stories on the topic, especially one written by Anne Liebmann - "Quatre Gourous pour le Management des Connaissances" It includes an outline of dozens of websites organized in two categories: consultants and knowledge managers. The most recent edition, September 98 features an article - "Veille et Intelligence Economique - Un marche de 800 millions de francs" and a new book by Langdon Morris - La Chaine de la Connaissance: Strategies d'Entreprise pour l'Internet.

More evidence of French leadership is Madam Edith Cresson, who Chairs the Innovation Programme for the European Union in Brussels (See the special feature edition of I3 UPDATE - Innovation in Europe. Other sources of international expertise on the topic can be found at the OECD - Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development - that is headquartered in Paris. For the last few years, several studies have elevated the discussion of the benefits of a knowledge focus beyond enterprise productivity to the economic well being of nations - industrialized and developing alike. The bimonthly OECD Observer has provided feature stories on human capital, learning and society, national systems of innovation and the knowledge-based economy. In 1995 articles, Riel Miller and Gregory Wurzburg argue that there are at least three barriers to linking the value of human potential to economic value:

  1. The lack of transparency in the costs of labour and particularly, of upgrading the qualifications of skilled workers.
  2. The difficulties in measuring the productive capacity (i.e., the knowledge, skills, and abilities) which workers acquire through further training and/or learning on the job.
  3. Problems in reflecting the realistic economic value for qualifications and carrying them forward on the balance sheet.

In a recent issue of the Journal of Knowledge Management (September 1998), Editor Rory Chase features articles on this expended view of the knowledge economy: "Blueprint for 21st Century Innovation Management" by Debra M. Amidon and "Markets and the Knowledge Economy: is Anything Broken? Can Government Fix It?" by Gregory Wurtzburg.

Wurzburg argues - and effectively so - current financial accounting and reporting systems provide too little information on the kinds of intellectual assets that would appear important in a knowledge economy. Moreover, there has been little progress in changing financial information, or improving non-financial information. He cites an article in a new OECD release - Technology, Productivity and Job Creation: Best policy Practices (1998) - that some of the innovations observed in modern enterprises are creating high performance workplaces:

  • Marked specialization of enterprises or business units (focus on 'core' activities)
  • Horizontal inter-firm links for subcontracting or outsourcing
  • Effective use of technology
  • Increasing flattened hierarchies in which greater importance is accorded to horizontal communication links.
  • Information is gathered at more levels and channeled hierarchically
  • Authority to act is less dependent on hierarchical models of authority
  • Employees are better trained and more responsive
  • Multi-skilling and job rotation increase, blurring differences between work activities
  • Small self-managing or autonomous work groups are common and take more responsibility.

On the other hand, progress in global knowledge innovation has been slow as evidenced by a number of surveys studied. Although managers consider themselves working in knowledge-intensive organizations, few consider their organizations effective at facilitating knowledge growth or even less at the ability to apply knowledge. The lack of progress, he suggests, is not because of a lack of top level management commitment, but the lack of the ability to adequately measure performance. "Slow progress in operationalizing knowledge management at the level of the enterprise translates into uneven transition into a knowledge economy."

As a country, the French are wrestling with many of the same issues and challenges are other nations of the world. How do they harness the intellectual wealth to create a prosperous future? It is a function of government, industry and academic interaction. It is a function of heritage. It is a matter of country leaders being bold enough to establish a vision which is not outdated by the time implementation plans are developed. It is a matter of developing a common language and shared vision among many different disciplines and trends shaping the future. It is a matter of building collaborative (not competitive) advantage with visible leadership within the nation, within the geographic region and influencing progress around the world. One thing is for certain: a path into to the future does require some insightful and imaginative knowledge strategy.

Otherwise, the future is left to serendipity.

Email: debra@entovation.com & eml@ens-gestion.uvsq.fr

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Reprinted from I3 Update - 25.