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Information sharing helps

I had the opportunity last summer to be part of an intriguing strategic business initiative in the packaging sector: The Italian Trade Commission’s student trip to tour Italy and its packaging machinery builders.

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The business strategy behind this program is a long-term one, and we in the U.S. might do well to study it because of the way it fosters the kind of multinational relationships that seem so increasingly important in today’s global economy.

To participate in the program, students compete in a research paper competition. The writer of the best paper from each packaging program is chosen to attend a two-week all-expense-paid trip to Italy. The trip is a balance of cultural visits to cities in Italy and daily visits to packaging machinery firms. The firms host the student groups, and the managers of the facility or the CEOs of the firms take the time to explain their particular market niche, their machinery, and how they are organized.

The strategy of the Italian Trade Commission is simple but elegant. Take American students enrolled in the top packaging schools and expose them to Italian machinery and culture. This is the kind of program that influences young minds. These students will go on to work in the packaging industry, probably for large end-user companies, and their introduction to Italian machinery through this program forms a mental footnote to look at Italian packaging machinery when they begin to source machinery for their firms in the U.S.

I can’t speak for my fellow chaperones on this trip, Dr. Joe Marcy from Virginia Tech and Dr. Keith Vorst of California Polytechnic. But the most impressive thing I learned about Italian packaging machinery firms was their ability to network and share technology. Numerous studies in the field known as Regional Development have shown that when various firms in a region are able to share information and work together in this manner, innovation flourishes in those firms. High technology in Silicon Valley is an excellent example of this cluster behavior and interaction between players. The Central Italian area around Bologna is one of these cluster areas. When we visited firms I would ask the managers about their information networks, innovation strategies, and players. Everyone stated that the relationships existing between firms and academic institutions were central to their success. The interaction and sharing of ideas has been demonstrated as one of the key facts in corporate innovation.

That innovative technology is shared with the other participating firms in the region. So everyone gains a competitive advantage, and there is opportunity to further develop through combined development. Sometimes the firms are in direct competition, but mostly they are focused on a particular niche. The end result is a milieu of cross pollination, shared technology, and innovation. Maybe this type of learning experience is something we should try to foster on this side of the Atlantic.

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