Business & Finance
Commentary
3/22/2004
06:14 PM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
Commentary
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The Observer: The Next Step In Innovation Rests With Users

Innovation isn't dead and it isn't waiting for The Next Big Thing, says Lou Bertin. It's waiting for users to find new ways of applying the many existing technologies.

The subject of innovation has been much on my mind and much in the news lately. On my mind because it is one of the inevitable underlying themes of the InformationWeek conference, a gathering that's always one of my favorite weeks of the year. In the news because there has been a spate of coverage recently about how the well of innovation in IT is beginning to run dry. About the latter contention, I can only say: what rot.

What's interesting, I think, is how the writers and producers of the gloom-and-doom stories arrived at their conclusions; specifically, the fundamental flaw in the syllogisms they applied. As imputed by me, the "logic" being applied might be summed up as "there's no new 'enterprise' hardware on the horizon and there's no new 'enterprise' software on the horizon; therefore there are no innovations to be had."

On the surface, the conclusions reached by applying that logic make sense. After all, one might reasonably conclude, without new parts there can be no new products. Without new products, we're without innovation. Ipso facto.

Scratch the surface just a bit, however, and what's there dissolves quickly when exposed to the light of reality. The reality, in this case, being that innovation is seldom driven by specific pieces of hardware or compilations of software. Innovation is driven instead by how those tools are applied.

True enough that we're in a trough in terms of epochal product innovations. That's as it should be. There simply aren't any world-beating, mind-bending, market-redefining products looming out there just now. Refinements to and new iterations of things that are already out there--even those "things" that in the span of just a few years have become indispensable--will be plentiful, but that's about the extent of the new and exciting.

So, where do users find themselves? In the post-downturn, pre-election doldrums? In a technology void? In a limbo that can only be cured by "The Next Big Thing?" Hardly.

The dilemma, it seems, isn't one of innovation being stifled, it's one of coping with--and taking full advantage of--the plethora of options that are already out there. That also places the onus for innovating where it belongs: not on the providers of the tools available, but on the users of those tools, namely, the IS and IT departments that procure them.

That being the case, the justification for the gloom-and-doom, "deliver-us-please-from-our-misery" scenarios disappears completely, because never has technology been applied as innovatively, as strategically, and to such positive ends as it is right now.

What's simultaneously ironic and encouraging about all this is that we're seeing the realization of some of the wildest projections made during the wildest, go-go days of the dot.com boom. That technology would become utterly pervasive, completely portable, and utterly without need for tethering to a network. That commerce would be revolutionized. That changes in basic commercial and personal behaviors would inevitably occur.

It's all happened.

The technologies and the techniques for deploying those technologies are here and they're here to stay. Our behaviors and expectations have changed. All that's missing (or will soon be) among technology product and service providers is that great array of companies--some sanely planned and managed, others virtually dadaistic in their approach and execution--in the middle.

Giants remain, as do a tremendous number of niche companies that provide highly specialized products and services. Those in the middle are vanishing, and with good reason.

So where do we look for innovation, for that spark of new thinking that will redefine business? Inwardly, of course. One need only look to the fiscal results reported by FedEx recently, where quarterly profits increased by better than 40%. Why the increase? Per FedEx itself: Because of strategic technology investment. I cite FedEx, but the list could go on and on and does each year in the InformationWeek 500 issue.

The commodity that is technology is available to us all. The element that more than ever will separate the good from the bad and the great from the good is the ability to skillfully deploy those tools at our disposal.

We don't need the next big thing, we need all the existing little things to be done better and smarter and more profitably. The models are there for all to see. The question that must be answered is which companies are savvy enough to embrace lessons being taught daily by the best.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Lou Bertin's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Lou Bertin, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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