Monday, February 01, 2010

Innovation does not equal technology

I had the opportunity to speak to a group at a university recently about innovation.  In fact, I've spoken to four universities about innovation in the last few months.  There's a growing awareness that innovation needs to happen in university settings. This would include innovation on the administration of the university, in the teaching methods and in what is taught.  But that's a sideline to what I want to write about today.

In my most recent speaking engagement I was confronted by a senior faculty member who argued that all this talk about "innovation" was pointless, and missed the main target, which was that we needed more focus on science and engineering education.  In his mind, innovation was equated to technology, and only scientists and engineers could bring new technologies to life.  While I agree that scientists and technologists can bring innovations to market, I'd argue that that definition of innovation is awfully narrow.  It seems to me that innovation can occur in many avenues that have little or nothing to do with technology, engineering or science.

In fact OVO has recently worked with a financial services institution, a health care insurance firm, a life insurance firm and several other firms in the services industries where there are no physical products developed and few if any engineers or scientists.  Yet these firms are innovating.  Innovating their service models, customer experiences, processes and business models.  Apple, the penultimate innovator (tic) is a technology firm but doesn't innovate around technology - more around user experience, linkages and partnerships and content.

There are a number of firms that innovate around technology and science, so I don't want to downplay the importance of technology in innovation.  However, we do need to understand the balance between product innovation and all other kinds of innovation, and the importance of engineering and science to innovation.  It's really a question of set theory.  Technology innovation is a subset of innovation generally, and while all technology innovation is innovation, all innovation is not technology innovation.  As much as it may pain my engineering friends to say it, there's a lot of innovation happening that has little or nothing to do with technology.  Conversely, there's a lot of technological research that will impact our lives through new innovations as products and services.

This dichotomy also explains a lot of angst in the intelligentsia about the termination of NASA's return to the moon program and the decreasing amount of federal research generally.  The belief is, and I agree with this, that we learn more and capitalize on that knowledge when we explore space flight or invest in primary research.  But curtailing space flight does not necessarily make the US less innovative.  It leaves us in a situation where, from a governmental point of view we may become more dependent on the Russians or Chinese to put vehicles in space, or perhaps it makes available a private enterprise approach to space flight.  But reducing investment in these areas doesn't mean we are less innovative, it just spreads out the responsibility for innovation more broadly.  But that had already happened in the 70s and 80s, as private enterprise took on more direct research and investment and the federal government's role declined.

OK, enough of the tangent.  Innovation depends on creating and developing new ideas.  Some of those insights are based on new technologies or improvements to existing technologies.  Some innovation, however, is based on insights about services, processes or business models, and don't rely on technologists or engineers for insights.  To claim that all innovation is technology innovation, and that without engineers and scientists no "real" innovation can be accomplished is to view the world of innovation with a very narrow lens.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:03 PM


Anonymous Zarko said...

You are absolutely right about this. There are many people who tie innovation mainly to products and services in and around technology. And that's not a big wonder knowing how dependent people are on different technologies nowadays, failing to understand that it is basically a set of tools that can assist or confine our imagination. A quote from Abraham Maslow says "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.".
For some it may simply mean missing out on other opportunities in the multidimensional nature of business.

A very good research paper by the MIT Sloan School of Management titled "The 12 Different Ways for Companies to Innovate", touches upon many different areas in which companies can improve or reinvent themselves: offerings, platform, solutions, customers, customers experience, value capture, processes, organization, supply chain, presence, networking and brand.
More on this view can be found here.

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Steve Parker said...

Jeffrey I agree. I do a lot of work with software companies and as the definition of "apps" goes sub-atomic the notion has taken root that any tiny bit of software can be an "innovative product." A lot of the time it's not innovative, or not a complete product. How else to explain 140,000 iPhone apps when the average user uses 5-10? I blogged about the related trend of releasing software apps "early and often," and the down side of that practice.

Maybe it would help to draw the distinction of "applied" technology and "applied" innovation? There's a grossly inflated expectation of innovation out there. No one should get away with claiming to be innovative until a lot of users have had their hands on something and decided they like it and it works.

But again to your point, there are many innovations possible that are not strictly speaking technology-based.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Charlie Garland said...

While I agree in principle here, I have to say you really have only scratched the surface of the real problem at hand. Innovation is not only not just about technology, it's also not just about business. Nor is it just about the outcome. Innovation is a process, and needs to be thought of in its purest definition (an issue we could argue "til the cows come home," I'm sure).

In my humble opinion, innovation is a way of thinking. In fact, that is what my latest book is about (I won't shamelessly plug it here). And innovative thinking is the cause of innovative outcomes (the creation of new value) ANY context, not just technology or business. Innovation can -- and does -- apply to virtually every aspect of our lives, from personal relationships, to psychology, to philosophy, to politics and religion. The semantics comes in how one defines "value." This is soemthing I've given a great deal of thought lately.

I'm a firm believer that actions stem from ones thoughts, and so if innovative behavior is what we're seeking to inspire, then innovative thinking is how we should be pursuing that. If individuals understand how to create value, and are inspired to think -- and thus act -- that way, then the innovation outcomes will follow.

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