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Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

I finally took the time to consume the “leaked” NYTimes Innovation Report.  (on scribd and their story on it here http://www.nytimes.com/times-insider/2014/05/30/we-met-the-story-and-it-was-us/)

It is a remarkable business and cultural document even though I found most of its conclusions and recommendations to be off the mark.  It starkly shows just how unsettled we are as a culture here in the US, especially because of media and technology.   The authors oddly make no commentary about a complete lack of engagement that majority of the population has in important topics even though the data in the report they so carefully analyzed clearly shows.   That it is this easy for media entities to lose and gain audiences is a clear indicator that no one really is doing anything other than arbitraging various mediums for traffic.

There are a few examples in there that represent important topics, such as the Snowden/NSA story (media won by The Guardian) and the Michael Sam story (which they draw out a use case).  Unfortunately they spend more time in the report analyzing and regretting how they didn’t better take advantage of that story to drive traffic.  No where is it mentioned that their mission is to drive civic engagement or improve knowledge in the population and that they analyzed their and the competition progress on those dimensions.  

I have no doubt that at the core of NYTimes there is a really big mission to do journalism that matters in ways that have the most impact.   However, this report almost demotes that concept totally.   And in doing so the report really suggests measuring and experimenting with gimmicks (SEO, social viral tricks, a/b testing image / headline selection) is more important than measuring impact on knowledge in the population and impact to policy making and the government.   You get good and stay good at what you pay attention to (measure).   Please NYTimes don’t get good at SEO above being the BEST at having an impact on the knowledge of the world.

An example that starkly shows this… the cooking/recipes work they are doing.  Why spend any time and money on that?  there are millions and millions of recipes on the web and in apps.  There are 100s of successful cooking apps out there.   What unique impact is NYTimes having by grabbing eyeballs for this “evergreen content” from the “archives”.   There is important work being done at the NYTimes so take the people working on Cooking Apps on focus on heart and sole of the NYTimes.

It’s very much a report about keeping the business growing.   Which is definitely an important thing.  However, the gimmicks of the day are not the answer.   Don’t worry about playing games trying to entice more readers into the Daily Report.  The language in the report already conditions the thinking – shows me that they aren’t yet grokking the situation.  NYTimes doesn’t have readers anymore.  It has users.

The NYTimes could be a platform, the platform for knowledge and impact.   Its competition isn’t general news media.   It’s the network of knowledge platform technologies.   The search engine and the social network and the app store – the platform technologies are what has disrupted them, not competitors with inferior products exploiting new technologies.  These info organizing, creating and sharing platforms are the technologies and services and products that are having an impact.

I’m more bullish on NYTimes than it seems they are.   I happen to believe that NYTimes has far more impact on the world than all the competition they named combined.   Getting mentioned on Buzzfeed does nothing for a person or business or policy issue.   If most of the competition they mention went away tomorrow no one would bat an eye, the Google index would easily replace the link bait with something else.   If the NYTimes went away we would lose a major cornerstone / market maker for knowledge and depth and truth.   The NYTimes still shapes the world around it.  It has the unique position, because of it’s long held mission and depth to make the platform of impact in the future.

This is wild stuff, i know.   But really… all its media competition isn’t even close in impact nor resources nor value as Google or Facebook or Amazon….  the really foundation of our information existence.

The next big knowledge platform isn’t yet here, why couldn’t NYTimes be the one to build it?

 

 

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The aim of most businesses is to create wealth for those working at it. Generally it is preferred to do this in a sustainable, scalable fashion so that wealth may continue to be generated for a long time. The specific methods may involve seeking public valuation in the markets, selling more and more product directly profitably, private valuation and investment and more. The aim of most technology based companies to make the primary activity and product of the business involve technology. Most common understanding of the “technology” refers to information technology, bio technology, advanced hardware and so forth – i.e. tools or methods that go beyond long established ways of doing things and/or analog approaches. So the aims of a technology company are to create and maintain sustainable, scalable wealth generation through technological invention and execution.

Perhaps there are better definitions of terms and clearer articulation of the aims of business but this will suffice to draw out an argument for how technology companies could fully embrace the idea of a platform and, specifically, a technological platform. Too often the technology in a technology company exists solely in the end product sold to the market. It is a rare technology company that embraces technological thinking every where – re: big internet media still managing advertising contracts through paper and faxes, expense reports through stapled papers to static excel spreadsheets and so on. There are even “search” engine companies that are unable to search over all of their own internal documentation and knowledge.

The gains of technology are significant when applied everywhere in a company. A technological product produced by primitive and inefficient means is usually unable to sustain its competitive edge as those with technology in their veins quickly catch up to any early leads by a first, non technical mover. Often what the world sees on the outside of a technology company is The Wizard of Oz. A clever and powerful façade of technology – a vision of smoking machines doing unthinkable things. When in reality it is the clunky, hub bub of a duct taped factory of humans pulling levers and making machine noises. If the end result is the same, who cares? No one – if the result can be maintained. It never scales to grow the human factory of tech facade making. Nor does it scale to turn everything over to the machines.

What’s contemplated here is a clever and emergent interaction of human and machine technology and how a company goes from merely using technology to becoming a platform. Consider an example of a company that produces exquisite financial market analysis to major brokerage firms. It may be that human analysts are far better than algorithms at making the brilliant and challenging pattern recognition observations about an upcoming swing in the markets. There is still a technology to employ here. Such a company should supply the human analysts with as much enhancing tools and methods to increase the rate at which human analysts can spot patterns, reduce the cost in spreading the knowledge where it needs to go and to complete the feedback loop on hits and misses. There is no limit to how deeply a company should look at enhancing the humans ability. For instance, how many keystrokes does it take for the analyst to key in their findings? How many hops does a synthesized report go through before hitting the end recipient? how does the temperature of the working space impact pattern recognition ability? Perhaps all those details are far more of an impact to the sustainable profit than tuning a minute facet in some analytic algorithm.

The point here is that there should be no facet of a business left untouched by technology enhancement. Too often technology companies waste millions upon millions of dollars updating their main technology product only to see modest or no gain at all. The most successful technology companies of the last 25 years have all found efficiencies through technology mostly unseen by end users and these become their competitive advantages. Dell – ordering and build process. Microsoft – product pre-installations. Google – efficient power sources for data centers. Facebook – rapid internal code releases. Apple – very efficient supply chain. Walmart – intelligent restocking. Amazon – everything beyond the core “ecommerce”.

In a sense, these companies recognized their underlying ”platform” soon after recognizing their main value proposition. They learned quickly enough to scale that proposition – and to spend a solid blend of energy on the scale and the product innovation. A quick aside – scale here is taken to mean how efficiently a business can provide its core proposition to the widest, deepest customer base. It does not refer solely to hardware or supply chain infrastructure, though often that is a critical part of it.

One of many interesting examples of such platform thinking is the Coors Brewing company back in its hey day. Most people would not consider Coors a “technology” company. In the 1950s though it changed many “industries” with the introduction of the modern aluminum can. This non-beer related technology reduced the cost of operations, created a recycling sub industry, reduced the problem of tin-cans damaging the beers taste and so on. It also made it challenging on several competitors to compete on distribution, taste and production costs. This isn’t the first time the Coors company put technology to use in surprising ways. They used to build and operate their own powerplants to reduce reliance on non optimal resources and to have better control over their production.

Examples like this abound. One might conclude that any company delivery product at scale can be classified as a technology company – they all will have a significant platform orientation. However, this does not make them a platform company.

What distinguishes a platform technology from simply a technology company is one in which the platform is provided to partners and customers to scale their businesses as well. These are the types of companies where their product itself becomes scale. These are the rare, super valuable companies. Google, Apple, Intel, Facebook, Microsoft, Salesforce.com, Amazon and so on. These companies often start by becoming highly efficient technically in the production of their core offering and then turn that scale and license it to others. The value generation gets attributed to the scale provider appropriately in that it becomes a self realizing cycle. The ecosystem built upon the platform of such companies demands the platform operator to continue to build their platform so they too may scale. The platform operator only scales by giving more scale innovation back to the ecosystem. Think Google producing Android, offering Google Analytics for Free and so on. Think Facebook and Open Graph and how brands rely on their facebook pages to connect and collect data. Think Amazon and its marketplace and Cloud Computing Services. Think Microsoft and the MSDN/developer resources/cloud computing. Think Apple and itunes, app store and so on.

It’s not all that easy though! There seems to come a time with all such platform companies that a critical decision must be made before it’s obvious that it’s going to work. To Open The Platform Up To Others Or Not? Will the ecosystem adopt it? How will they pay for it? Can we deal with what is created? Are we truly at scale to handle this? Are we open enough to embrace the opportunities that come out of it? Are we ready to cede control? Are we ready to create our own competitors?

That last question is the one big one. But it’s the one to embrace to be a super valuable, rare platform at the heart of a significant ecosystem. And it happens to be the way to create a path to sustainable wealth generation that isn’t a short lived parlor trick.

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The only thing that matters in computing now is….

How long will it last….

Without a cord.

The iPhone4 smokes all other smartphones in battery life. It’s the only phone you can really travel with.

Stop innovation on everything else and make all devices work without electrical outlet jacking every 7 hours.

I am not an apple fan boy…. I’m typing this on an evo and my main CPU is Windows 7. But if I don’t get better disconnectivity from the wall…..

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Business Week has a really great article about the value of basic research in R&D Labs to future economies.

Many of the classic scientific research labs, such as Bell Labs and RCA Labs (now Sarnoff Corp.), were started and funded by companies with virtual monopolies and very strong, predictable cash flows. They were able to embrace the uncertainty and serendipity of pure research in the context of their business. But such companies don’t exist today. With the increasing focus on shareholder value that began in the 1990s as global competition heated up, Fortune 500 companies could no longer justify open-ended research that might not directly impact their bottom line. Today, corporate research is almost exclusively engineering R&D, tending more toward applied research with a 3- to 5-year time horizon (or shorter). IBM, Microsoft MSFT, and Hewlett-Packard HPQ, for example, collectively spend $17 billion a year on R&D but only 3% to 5% of that is for basic science.

The End of Labs

The End of Labs

It’s not just a shame, it’s actually a very bad strategy in play right now and for the future.  I once remarked at company retreat I was at that often a company or industry matures so much that it’s only strategy is to invent just for the sake of inventing, with the idea that completely new revenue streams might evolve.  I was quickly slapped down by a major executive, “We need to work on things that can be commercialized now.”  I knew then the fate of that company would be mostly an arbitrage of wall street expectations.  And that’s exactly what it, and 1000s of other companies have become.  This is also why this particular recession is so painful – most companies have no institutional ability to innovate.  Two decades of chaising the near term exit, the 30% stock market rocket shot leave industry stagnant.

Know one knows what the next big idea is.  And no one will figure that out without basic research.  And by big ideas, I mean things like the printing press, the Internet, germ theory, genetics, the Wheel.  You know – THE BIG STUFF that powers generations of commerce.

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One of the biggest misconceptions, or non-truths, in business is the idea that there is an agent of innovation.  There is no individual innovator, an innovative business, an innovative group that is the cause or source of innovation.  There is no agent capable of manufacturing innovation.

That’s a bold statement from someone (me!) who used to put “innovator” on his business card and hold email aliases at companies innovator@company.com.  Yes, I used to think I was a source of innovation.  Somewhere deep inside of me there was a well of not just good ideas but radical execution.

I was wrong.

Innovation’s cause is selection by consequences.  No individual nor business innovates.  The environment – market, cubicle group, building, peers, media – selects “innovative” products, methods and behavior.  Individuals and businesses we consider innovative tend to survive and thrive (earn more media attention!) because the market selects them and their more innovative behaviors.  As these entities’ innovative behavior is reinforced, they increase those behaviors.

Innovative behaviors??!??!  That phrase usually references a new or unconventional approach.  A behavior consider outside its context or environment is not inherently innovative.  When the market (environment) selects (recognizes, buys, talks about…) the uncommon behavior (method or product) above all others, we call it innovative.

Just as a behavior can be innovative by the market selection, that same behavior may be non-innovative, standard or status quo in a different market (time, money, people, weather change a lot!).

Herein lies the difficulty in bottling up innovation and xeroxing it into individuals and companies.  Innovation is not anything.  It is not an object.  It is not a property of an individual.  It is not cause of success nor failure.

Anyone who has an exact prescription for innovation is a fraud.  Anyone who claims to be able to predict market conditions for innovation is a fraud.

The only thing we can do as businesses and individuals is behave.  The rate of your behavior gives you the best chance to “innovate” – to uncover that method or product the market will reward.  The more you behave (or DO STUFF) the more the market can reinforce or extinguish.

Again, though no prescription for behavior exists we can categorize businesses and individuals by their rate of behavior.  Google, Apple, IBM, HP, Gentech, Glaxo…. all these companies have enormous rates of behavior.  Robin Williams, Cohen Brothers, Steven Spielberg, Barack Obama, John McCain, Michael Criton, Ian McEwan… all outbehave their counterparts.  These entities all have increased chances at success (market selection) because of their huge repertoire and rates of behaviors.  Need proof?  go look up the number of press releases, new products, new hires, changes to websites, additions to catalogues, documentation and compare to “less innovative” competitors.  Consider the people in your life you call innovative, what’s different about them?  what were they doing when they got their “break”?

Are these not the icons we turn to for “innovation”?  do we not write endless books about their approach, in search of the magic formula?

Stop the search for innovation.  Just do.  Not just something.  lots of things.

(yes, of course, I’ll talk about “focus” at somepoint.  Focus is another baggage word thrown around.)

~Russ

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