America has led the world in technology innovation for almost two centuries. While Europe kick-started the industrial revolution, America took it into high gear: Mississippi steamboats, giant steam shovels, the telephone, the assembly line, the light bulb, typewriter, sewing machine and so more came out of the USA. That trend continued in the 20th Century as high tech came to the fore as Silicon Valley gave the world a host of semiconductor and computer breakthroughs.
More recently, however, that dominance has come under threat. To save a quick buck at home, many American firms have moved a lot of their know-how overseas. Much of our software is now coded in India or elsewhere. Almost all the computers and components are made elsewhere. And surprise, surprise: now we are seeing Indian, Chinese, Spanish and even Israeli firms fast becoming the darlings of IT.
So the question is this: Can innovation be nurtured so America the retains its dominance of the IT sector?
William Bumbernick, chief innovation officer at Alteva believes part of the problem may lie in the growth experienced by U.S. IT companies over the past half a century. To wit: as technology companies expand, the drive of innovation can be clouded by the needs of the business. “It’s important to make sure that you embrace the innovative spirit that creates a successful company to begin with in a way that ensures durable competitive innovation within your company,” he said.
After all, it was technological innovation that made the company successful in the first place. If you lose focus on that, you are certainly going to suffer when the next wave of startups changes the playing field. The business may still be able to concentrate on the dollars and cents, but that vital spark of genius within the company will start lagging, and it will move from the leading edge to follower.
“As our business grew, I became less involved in innovation and more involved on the business side of things, driving strategy,” said Bumbernick. “We decided to restructure our executive team to utilize our strengths where they needed to be within the company and that’s what put me in the chief innovation officer role.”
Any innovative company needs such a C-level posting to retain its roots in the creative side of the IT business.
Beyond that, an environment is needed that allows team members to propose new ideas without fear that they may be too risky, said Gary Quan, CTO at Diskeeper Corp.. You have to spend some time distinguishing between the good ideas and the great ones.
“A lot of ideas and solutions are proposed, but some of these can be misguided and may not result in long term success,” he said. “What is needed first is to find the real problem the users are experiencing and really need help on. Then from this, solutions can be innovated and verified as something the users see as significant value that they will gladly exchange for.”
His company spends a lot of time surveying users to discover what they really need rather than what might bring a quick return. That means working towards long term value.
Michael Patterson, CEO of Plixer International takes this a stage further. Product managers, he said, have to be careful not to overly specify design criteria for new features otherwise developers may avoid thinking on their own and neglect other more important upgrades. “Allowing developers a bit of freedom may result in unique features that meet stated goals yet add tremendous value,” said Patterson.
While he agrees that customers can be an important area of innovation, he cautions that this shouldn’t overwhelm the company’s vision and direction. For instance, customers might be keen on a particular missing feature but that shouldn’t necessarily throw everything else off schedule. Go over such matters with developers and managers to get the appropriate timeline worked out.
“Be careful about going with your gut on new features,” said Patterson. “Try to build consensus within the team as this will minimize the risk of wasting resources on features that won’t grow the business.”
Patterson recounted how his own company violated this principle. Cisco contacted Plixer about supporting its new performance monitoring technology for reporting on medianets (a media rich voice and video network). Cisco was exporting statistical information on the quality of the voice and video streams and needed a vendor to report on the new type of data.
Without talking with customers first, however, Plixer developers delivered several new reports to Cisco. Unfortunately, this didn’t provide the high-level information that was really required. Back to the drawing board. But this time, the developers knew what was really needed and delivered it. And based on further feedback from customers, the company is trying to sharpen the reports even more.