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9/6/2013
10:31 AM
Rob Preston
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Beware The Faux Innovators

Before we can understand what innovation is, we must first understand what it's not.

2013 InformationWeek 500
See our full InformationWeek 500 ranking plus more profiles and analysis

Innovation is the lifeblood of modern business and the defining characteristic of InformationWeek 500 companies. To these companies, innovation isn't just a buzzword. Their creative, even pioneering, technology initiatives are producing clear business results, which we chronicle in this special IW 500 digital issue.

Elsewhere, however, the word innovation has become "so broadly defined that it has lost all meaning," writes InformationWeek contributor Coverlet Meshing. "The innovation industrial complex produces fast food -- innovation in a can, with loads of salt, sugar and fat."

Look around. Almost every company in every industry seems to be touting a new innovation center, incubator, lab, council, committee or cabal. Every process improvement is hailed as a paradigm shift. Every new product is a breakthrough.

Recent company press releases reveal glimpses of this junk diet. One energetic company whose business or product I still can't divine says it "provides innovative solutions to articulate, unify and manage brand impact." Digital business leader Starbucks recently introduced what it called an "innovative cross-channel, multi-brand loyalty program" -- a fine program, no doubt, but don't companies in a range of industries (airline, banking, entertainment, casinos) already have similar ones? Even Procter & Gamble, a mainstay on annual Top 10 Innovator lists, can go over the top. On its "P&G Innovations" website, it boasts about lots of pedestrian products, including shaving cream for men with sensitive skin, batteries that offer "long-lasting power" and the first flavor-coated, 24-hour pill for treating frequent heartburn.

A Google search on the word "innovation" produces 243,000,000 results. I confess to not having clicked on all of those links, but I suspect that a couple of hundred million of the products and ideas therein are underwhelming.

Before we can understand what innovation is, we must first understand what it's not. "Faux innovation," let's call it, falls into three main categories:

-- The clever, even brilliant, idea from that guy in the garage that never turns into a profitable commercial product at large scale. Writes one reader commenting on the Meshing column: "Commercialization is where that geek faces the realities that will create a million happy customers. I've had cartoons of me and the light bulb flashed on screens, and my thought is always the same, 'Call me when we have shipped a half million.'"

-- The incremental new product or product advancement whose commercial success owes more to the vendor's established market presence than to anything particularly special about the output itself. Think P&G's new shaving cream. Granted, the iPhone took off as fast as it did partly because of Apple's rabid customer base, but there's no denying that the facile user interface and sleek design of this first-of-its-kind handheld computer were major factors in its blockbuster success.

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-- Pure bluster, plain and simple. Mundane products hyped as breakthroughs without any supporting evidence.

True innovations change how people work and play. They change how products are bought and sold. They're the result of a tremendous amount of hard work and ingenuity, but they often seem obvious in hindsight.

Sometimes innovations are slow out of the gate. For example, the VisiCalc spreadsheet, invented in the 1970s by Dan Bricklin, was never a mass-market success, but later adaptations by more established vendors (Lotus 1-2-3 and then Microsoft Excel) transformed financial calculation and reporting.

Sebastian Thrun, CEO of MOOC (massive open online course) pioneer Udacity, writes in a blog post that most innovations take time to mature. "To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works," Thrun wrote after a study showed a Udacity MOOC producing superior student performance at San Jose State University. "Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation."

Innovation In A Box?

Innovation gurus put forth their innovation templates. A Forbes article by four Bain consultants, for example, exhorts business leaders to set a clear strategy and build an organizational culture for innovation, as well as create processes for generating, developing and scaling ideas and managing a diverse portfolio of innovations. Pretty straightforward stuff.

But InformationWeek columnist Meshing insists that corporate innovation isn't a repeatable process. You don't see a central innovation group at Apple. It's just part of the company culture even if founder Steve Jobs never did set about "building" such a culture.

Companies that are good at innovation do tend to be more open to it and work harder at it than also-rans. In the realm of technology, think companies that allow shadow IT and skunk works and make a conscious effort to reverse the 80/20 rule. If an innovative company does create a formal team or group to add some structure and process to its cutting-edge work, those people tend to get a long leash. How long depends on the size and maturity of the company and the pressure it's under to produce wins in the short term.

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RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
9/11/2013 | 4:17:49 PM
re: Beware The Faux Innovators
...and the iPhone (the example I used...I didn't cite the iPad) established the notion that phones are less for making voice calls and more for consuming mobile applications and entertainment. Nothing Palm invented established that phenomenon.
Midnight
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Midnight,
User Rank: Guru
9/11/2013 | 3:25:50 AM
re: Beware The Faux Innovators
I agree and concede there is a distinction, however, the process
typically runs that an innovation leads to an invention. I see innovation as the way a visionary Science Fiction author creates a whole concept that is radically different from the norm. Consider H.G. Wells as a case study. He innovated the very workable concepts of nuclear powered submarines, space flight missions, and more. Concepts that could not be realized due to technological limitations of the era. The inventions that followed changed the world as we know it.

So in context I consider the core innovations for a device we call a
smartphone come from; the realization of a decent handheld computer (envisioned in fantasy genre' but invented by Palm), mixed with a wireless phone (Thanks Alex G. Bell, walkie talkies, Motorola for the cell concept, and Samsung for the 3G technology), using the esthetics of Stanley Kubrick's monolith and video streaming, and powered by a tiny massively dense battery. This was an evolution, not an innovation. The complete vision was already there. We just needed the pieces invented to assemble the solution. There will be more refinements and improvements for sure, but true innovation will be hard to come by until we finish checking off the existing list waiting for manifestation.

A recent realization of actual innovation is the near field communication technology, and the inventions are tumbling from the minds of developers to discover how to use it successfully. Even it owes it's innovative existence to fiction, watch the old series TekWar and you will see people using NFC to exchange digital currency in an imaginary futuristic setting. A collection of concept nonexistent technologies, a well defined use case, and a publicly accepted infrastructure all modeled and presented as a future norm just waiting to be realized. That is what I call innovation absolutely begging to be invented. Not just an improvement, upgrade, retooling or revision, but an actual connect the dots innovation to invention path being realized today.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
9/10/2013 | 9:56:44 PM
re: Beware The Faux Innovators
But Apple also drove an entirely new business model -- the 99 cent digital music single. The music industry didn't want it, but Apple made it reality.
Non profit techie
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Non profit techie,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/10/2013 | 9:18:12 PM
re: Beware The Faux Innovators
I agree with Midnight. I consider Apple more focused on design and usability than tech. In the world of design, there is a famous phrase, "Good designers copy, great ones steal".
Brian45242
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Brian45242,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/10/2013 | 7:50:50 PM
re: Beware The Faux Innovators
Midnight...i think you might be blurring the lines of what i have always looked at as inventing versus innovating. Inventing is creating something new and never seen before. (That's hard and done much less often!) Innovation is finding new ways to use something (say a technology) or improving on an existing solution. While not an Apple customer myself, I would have to give them the nod on being quite innovative...even if they were inspired by the works of others.
Midnight
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Midnight,
User Rank: Guru
9/9/2013 | 10:04:31 PM
re: Beware The Faux Innovators
Anytime anyone uses the word innovation and Apple corp. in the same sentence instantly loses journalistic credibility. Why is this? Consider the blockbuster products and the true sources; the successful "hand held computer" was pioneered by Palm and later greatly improved on by HP with the iPaq, the mp3 player was pioneered by Real audio, and the iPad owes it's existence to Stanley Kubric and Star Trek.

I agree the innovation cycle take many years to mature as truly useful technology simply because the concept products either do not have the existing supporting technology or implemented ecosystem to "realize the vision". But once it does we owe recognition to the pioneering innovators as the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. Companies that come later, steal the base concept and fill in known gaps should publicly acknowledge and tip the hat to the true innovation sources at the very least.
OtherJimDonahue
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OtherJimDonahue,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/9/2013 | 8:39:05 PM
re: Beware The Faux Innovators
It's the press release-ization of our culture. Unmitigated, unwarranted hype is just more accepted than it used to be. "Innovative" has become an easy word to toss around, with little to back it up.
ANON1251977588428
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ANON1251977588428,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/9/2013 | 5:36:32 PM
re: Beware The Faux Innovators
Two facts:
1. The first Personal Computer was built in a garage in United States.
2. The Future in Software is writing in a village from Romania.
I have worked for many years to a fundamental invention in software, on a
revolutionary informational model.

I do not talk about another kind of software.
It is more than just software.
It is a natural informational model.

The current software model (based on Data Center, Cloud, Internet of Things, IPv6, Anything as a
Service (XaaS), etc) is becoming more and more complicated, waste of time and
money and a danger for human society.

From a year to the other the number of IT specialists will be bigger and bigger. They must solve the complications from the software model rather than the complexity of the informational real world.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
9/9/2013 | 3:20:32 PM
re: Beware The Faux Innovators
The best advice I've heard for big data innovation is to go after known problems rather than gadding about for new problems to solve. It's hard enough figuring out how to make the most of new data types without having to come up with a new problem to solve as well. ConocoPhillips (the IW500 winner I covered) is using new data to solve an old problem that reduces gas well productivity. Whole-cloth innovation is hard to come by, and I suspect dedicated innovation groups that try to start at square one aren't as successful as experienced people who have had to try, try again to solve the big, known problems.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
9/9/2013 | 2:36:24 PM
re: Beware The Faux Innovators
I'm not as down on formal innovation groups/incubators, on innovation as a "repeatable process," as our columnist Coverlet Meshing is. Granted, some of these innovation exercises are window dressing. But I can't fault companies for trying to put some structure and discipline to their innovation efforts.
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