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Posts Tagged ‘The Five Competitive Forces that shape Strategy’

On past and future innovation – Disruption, inequality and robots

How to define innovation, how has it been studied in the recent past, and what does future innovation hold for the human race?

Sometimes the word innovation gets misused. Like when people use the word “technology” to mean recent gadgets and gizmos, instead of acknolwedging that the term encompasses the first wheel. “Innovation” is another tricky one. Our understanding of recent thoughts on innovation – as well as its contemporary partner, “disruption” – were thrown into question in June when Jill Lepore penned an article in The New Yorker that put our ideas about innovation and specifically on Clayton Christensen’s ideas about innovation in a new light. Christensen, heir apparent to fellow Harvard Business School bod Michael Porter (author of the simple, elegant and classic The Five Competitive Forces that Shape Strategy) wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997. His work on disruptive innovation, claiming that successful businesses focused too much on what they were doing well, missing what, in Lepore’s words, “an entirely untapped customer wanted”, created a cottage industry of conferences, companies and counsels committed to dealing with disruption, (not least this blog, which lists disruption as one its topics of interest). Lepore’s article describes how, as Western society’s retelling of the past became less dominated by religion and more by science and historicism, the future became less about the fall of Man and more about the idea of progress. This thought took hold particularly during The Enlightenment. In the wake of two World Wars though, our endless advance toward greater things seemed less obvious;

“Replacing ‘progress’ with ‘innovation’ skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices our getting newer and newer”

The article goes on to look at Christensen’s handpicked case studies that he used in his book. When Christensen describes one of his areas of focus, the disk-drive industry, as being unlike any other in the history of business, Lepore rightly points out the sui generis nature of it “makes it a very odd choice for an investigation designed to create a model for understanding other industries”. She goes on for much of the article to utterly debunk several of the author’s case studies, showcasing inaccuracies and even criminal behaviour on the part of those businesses he heralded as disruptive innovators. She also deftly points out, much in the line of thinking in Taleb’s Black Swan, that failures are often forgotten about, and those that succeed are grouped and promoted as formulae for success. Such is the case with Christensen’s apparently cherry-picked case studies. Writing about one company, Pathfinder, that tried to branch out into online journalism, seemingly too soon, Lepore comments,

“Had [it] been successful, it would have been greeted, retrospectively, as evidence of disruptive innovation. Instead, as one of its producers put it, ‘it’s like it never existed’… Faith in disruption is the best illustration, and the worst case, of a larger historical transformation having to do with secularization, and what happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God as explanation and justification.”

Such were the ramifications of the piece, that when questioned on it recently in Harvard Business Review, Christensen confessed “the choice of the word ‘disruption’ was a mistake I made twenty years ago“. The warning to businesses is that just because something is seen as ‘disruptive’ does not guarantee success, or fundamentally that it belongs to any long-term strategy. Developing expertise in a disparate area takes time, and investment, in terms of people, infrastructure and cash. And for some, the very act of resisting disruption is what has made them thrive. Another recent piece in HBR makes the point that most successful strategies involve not just a single act of deus ex machina thinking-outside-the-boxness, but rather sustained disruption. Though Kodak, Sony and others may have rued the days, months and years they neglected to innovate beyond their core area, the graveyard of dead businesses is also surely littered with companies who innovated too soon, the wrong way or in too costly a process that left them open to things other than what Schumpeter termed creative destruction.

terminator-5-sarah-connor-actress

Your new boss

Outside of cultural and philosophical analysis of the nature and definition of innovation, some may consider of more pressing concern the news that we are soon to be looked after by, and subsequently outmaneuvered in every way by, machines. The largest and most forward-thinking (and therefore not necessarily likely) of these concerns was recently put forward by Nick Bostrom in his new book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. According to a review in The Economist, the book posits that once you assume that there is nothing inherently magic about the human brain, it is evidence that an intelligent machine can be built. Bostrom worries though that “Once intelligence is sufficiently well understood for a clever machine to be built, that machine may prove able to design a better version of itself” and so on, ad infinitum. “The thought processes of such a machine, he argues, would be as alien to humans as human thought processes are to cockroaches. It is far from obvious that such a machine would have humanity’s best interests at heart—or, indeed, that it would care about humans at all”.

Beyond the admittedly far-off prognostications of the removal of the human race at the hands of the very things it created, machines and digital technology in general pose great risks in the near-term, too. For a succinct and alarming introduction to this, watch the enlightening video at the beginning of this post. Since the McKinsey Global Instititute published a paper in May soberly titled Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy, much editorial ink and celluloid (were either medium to still be in much use) has been spilled and spooled detailing how machines will slowly replace humans in the workplace. This transformation – itself a prime example of creative destruction – is already underway in the blue-collar world, where machines have replaced workers in automotive factories. The Wall Street Journal reports Chinese electronics makers are facing pressure to automate as labor costs rise, but are challenged by the low margins, precise work and short product life of the phones and other gadgets that the country produces. Travel agents and bank clerks have also been rendered null, thanks to that omnipresent machine, the Internet. Writes The Economist, “[T]eachers, researchers and writers are next. The question is whether the creation will be worth the destruction”. The McKinsey report, according to The Economist, “worries that modern technologies will widen inequality, increase social exclusion and provoke a backlash. It also speculates that public-sector institutions will be too clumsy to prepare people for this brave new world”.

Such thinking gels with an essay in the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs, by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee and Michael Spence, titled New World Order. The authors rightly posit that in a free market the biggest premiums are reserved for the products with the most scarcity. When even niche, specialist employment though, such as in the arts (see video at start of article), can be replicated and performed to economies of scale by machines, then labourers and the owners of capital are at great risk. The essay makes good points on how while a simple economic model suggests that technology’s impact increases overall productivity for everyone, the truth is that the impact is more uneven. The authors astutely point out,

“Today, it is possible to take many important goods, services, and processes and codify them. Once codified, they can be digitized [sic], and once digitized, they can be replicated. Digital copies can be made at virtually zero cost and transmitted anywhere in the world almost instantaneously.”

Though this sounds utopian and democratic, what is actually does, the essay argues, is propel certain products to super-stardom. Network effects create this winner-take-all market. Similarly it creates disproportionately successful individuals. Although there are many factors at play here, the authors readily concede, they also maintain the importance of another, important and distressing theory;

“[A] portion of the growth is linked to the greater use of information technology… When income is distributed according to a power law, most people will be below the average… Globalization and technological change may increase the wealth and economic efficiency of nations and the world at large, but they will not work to everybody’s advantage, at least in the short to medium term. Ordinary workers, in particular, will continue to bear the brunt of the changes, benefiting as consumers but not necessarily as producers. This means that without further intervention, economic inequality is likely to continue to increase, posing a variety of problems. Unequal incomes can lead to unequal opportunities, depriving nations of access to talent and undermining the social contract. Political power, meanwhile, often follows economic power, in this case undermining democracy.”

There are those who say such fears of a rise in inequality and the whole destruction through automation of whole swathes of the job sector are unfounded, that many occupations require a certain intuition that cannot be replicated. Time will tell whether this intuition, like an audio recording, health assessment or the ability to drive a car, will be similarly codified and disrupted (yes, we’ll continue using the word disrupt, for now).

What Creative Destruction means for Kodak, China and Romney

February 27, 2012 1 comment

Some things are built to last. Some businesses are made this way. They are in the end ultimately just as susceptible to market forces as their counterparts. Originally a Marxist idea, creative destruction has found its way into popular economics. Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan mentions the phrase often in his autobiography. Zeitgeist has previously mentioned the late, great economist Schumpeter, too. His notion of ‘disequilibrium’ was that within the market, though you may have a great product or solution, there are external forces that can render said product or solution redundant. These innovations often come in leaps of ingenuity that might initially seem to be extraneous to the current product or solution’s market. Finally though, the new innovation ends up eradicating any synonymous inefficiencies. Think first about Henry Ford’s famous quotation,

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Along with the insight that customer research is not always the best way to go – Apple’s avoidance of it is a case in point – what this quotation also illustrates is our tendency toward myopia when it comes to seeing strategic competition from a seemingly unrelated field. Harvard Business Review have an excellent paper on strategy that covers this. It is unlikely that anyone thought the motorcar would replace horses, or that it would even be popular. This eradication of the other, more inefficient product or solution is a great example of creative destruction. Apple’s iTunes and it’s myrmidons, and the damage it has inflicted on CD sales, is another example.

Speaking of cars, attention on the auto industry was front and centre during half-time of the recent Superbowl in the US. The automaker Chrysler, which produced a similarly provocative commercial that aired during last year’s Superbowl, has caused much chatter over television, radio, print and social media. It’s an affecting advert, not least because it is built on a fallacy. Though Zeitgeist believes that bailing out the auto industry was the right thing to do, this commercial, and politicians of different stripes (including Newt Gingrich and Obama), have all been harping on about the manufacturing renaissance coming to the US: America Redux. The simple, horrible truth is that while manufacturing as an industry has room to grow it will not return to what it was.

Moreover, those jobs that will be required demand increasingly skilled, technical labourers, i.e. college-educated. There will be a great many people who are now out of work in the US who will be unlikely to find work again due to a lack of required skills. This is not President Obama’s fault, just as it is not Bush Jr. or Daddy Bush’s fault. Though some would point the finger at policies endorsing outsourcing, this would be incorrect. Insourcing is an increasing phenomenon as wages improve in regions like China. It is the way of things, as a recent editorial explains in the FT explains,

Mr Obama [has] bought into the fallacy… that manufactures are declining in the US, but his work suffers from conceptual flaws. Take just one problem: services splinter off from manufacturing even as vertical integration yields to specialisation. Over time, manufacturing yields to services. This gigantic change that is taking place has nothing to do with outsourcing.

And speaking of China, the country sits on the brink of mass creative destruction. While money poured into the country during times of less fiscal restraint, China funneled it into myriad infrastructure and planning projects. Now the easy credit is drying up, the country is in a difficult situation, not helped by mass protests across the land as workers demand remuneration that could almost be considered wages. As with the US, there will be an inexorable shift from a manufacturing industry to a services industry. How horrific this shift will be depends upon timing, among things, as a recent article in The Economist points out,

“The long-term plan is for China to wean itself off its reliance on exports and investment projects such as roads, railways and overpriced property developments, and for domestic consumption of goods and services to play a much bigger role in fuelling growth. But this rebalancing will be a long, hard slog. Officials do not want shock therapy because it could threaten the jobs of many of the 160m migrants who come from the countryside to provide the cheap labour behind China’s exports.”

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, as is the lot of someone frequently perceived as front-runner in the candidate race, has been the focus of unrelenting criticism from his fellow party members. Some of this criticism has focussed on his time working for the private equity wing of uber-consultancy Bain & Co., specifically on how many people’s jobs the man cost during his tenure there. Though Romney claims to have created a net sum of 100,000 jobs, he has since withdrawn that rather nebulous figure as his arithmetic has been questioned. His Republican opponents, as well as grass-roots Democratic lobbying group MoveOn (below), have been airing ads featuring blue-collared workers who were let go thanks to Romney’s strategies and implementations.

Mr. Romney, though his flaws and foibles may be many – he recently praised the height of Michigan’s trees as being “just right” – is not responsible for the trend of efficiency savings in America, as the Schumpeter editorial in The Economist points out,

“[I]t was also a symptom of a wider change. It was not just people like Mr Romney who were pushing American companies to shape up. It was also the new rigours of global competition. Firms of every description sought to squeeze out inefficiencies, sell off non-core businesses and close redundant operations, all in the name of shareholder value. [I]t was the shift from manufacturing to services.”

To attack Romney for such practices is to attack the foundations of modern capitalism. Which one is most welcome to do, but presumably something that most Republicans would want to shy away from, continuing as they do to bizarrely refer to Obama as a socialist. One can’t have it both ways.

Similarly caught unawares was the film industry back in the silent era, which underestimated the massive success it would have on its hands with the arrival of sound. While excellent news for film studios, many of the talent in front and behind cameras suddenly found their way of storytelling outdated and unpopular. The Artist, which won Best Picture and Best Director awards at the Oscars at the weekend, perfectly illustrates this change. The ceremony was a grand affair as usual, hosted in the same venue as it has been for years, The Kodak Theater. Reuters recently reported that Kodak has asked to have its name removed from the building as it tries to reduce its debts.

Kodak’s recent fall into bankruptcy serves as a superb example of the forces of creative destruction. The brand is surely one of the most famous of the 20th century. The Economist called it the Google of its day, and surely there are few companies that manage to enter the public lexicon. Until the 1990s it was “regularly rated as one of the world’s most valuable brands”.  The phrase “Kodak moment” has long since left the zeitgeist. The company built one of the first digital cameras ever back in 1975, the cheapest of which cost $1,000. Its share price has fallen 90% in the past year. Its competitor Fujifilm was cheaper and quicker to adapt. Creative destruction first made physical film cameras obsolete, and increasingly digital cameras as smartphones become equipped with high-definition cameras.

After trying to diversify into chemicals, George Fisher, boss of Kodak from 1993-99, “decided that its expertise lay not in chemicals but in imaging. He cranked out digital cameras and offered customers the ability to post and share pictures online.” This could have led to the creation of something akin to Facebook, but for one reason or another it did not. The Economist blames Fisher, and whatever the cause, the company has also suffered from inconsistent strategies due to a revolving door of senior management. Tony Jackson, writing in the FT, defines the creative destruction as one of “technological disruption… cheaper than the existing version and initially not as good. Faced with a cheap and dirty alternative… it goes against the grain to devote resources to it.” One of Kodak’s problems was also its passion; for physical film itself. This passion essentially made them blind to investing fully in the coming digital revolution. There was an acknowledgement that a change was coming, but it was underestimated.

Creative destruction works in terms of the stock market too, of course. What this clip, from the excellent film Margin Call, is alluding to, is that good times lead to indolence; crashes trim the fat. It is nothing new. The series is a cyclical, unending one, difficult to influence, let alone prevent. (That’s why it was so ludicrous when Gordon Brown, as short-lived UK Prime Minister, grandiloquently announced “no return to boom and bust”). Each new cycle brings new regulations, new ideologies and practices. New products, new solutions. The ways the booms and busts happen changes. The products we make and the strategies we implement change and become more and more innovative. But the cycle never ends. Enjoy the ride.

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