Innovation Seeks Freedom

By Tarak Modi Print this article Print

How cutting-edge enterprises stay ahead of the competition.

Principle 4: Innovation seeks to be free.

“Information seeks to be free,” said author and futurist Stewart Brand at the first Hacker’s Conference in 1984. Since information is the lifeblood of innovation, it can be presumed that innovation also seeks to be free.

The Open Government Directive issued by the Obama Administration provides a framework that can help define what freedom means in the context of innovation. To be free, innovation needs to be open, transparent and participatory. 

One such innovation trend is crowdsourcing, a term coined by author and contributing editor at Wired magazine Jeff Howe. Crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing tasks traditionally performed by an employee or contractor to an undefined, large group of people or community (the crowd) through an open call.

A model for this is what Vivek Kundra did while serving as CTO of Washington, D.C. He wanted to make the district’s revolutionary Data Catalog, DC.gov, more useful to the public. So he launched a contest, Apps for Democracy, which cost D.C. only $50,000 and resulted in 47 iPhone, Facebook and Web applications that have an estimated value in excess of $2,600,000. The $10,000 final prize winner is an innovative app that enables iPhone and Facebook access to the district’s 311 city service site, allowing users to submit and view service requests by category and location on an interactive map.

Another form of unconstrained innovation is “open innovation,” a term coined by author Henry Chesbrough in his book Open Innovation. This concept encourages organizations to use external ideas in addition to internal ideas.

Dell and Starbucks have used open innovation successfully since 2008 and have implemented hundreds of ideas from their customers. Dell’s thin notebook is the result of the idea “thin is in,” generated on Dell’s IdeaStorm open innovation platform.

Principle 5: Innovation takes many forms.

Clayton Christensen, an author and professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, coined the term “disruptive innovation” in his book The Innovator’s Solution to describe an innovation that creates a new and unexpected market by applying a different set of values. Examples of disruptive innovation include the steam engine, automobiles, phones, plastics, personal computers and digital photography.

Unfortunately, Christensen’s success in popularizing this term has, in a way, been a disservice to the field of innovation, for it is the only perception of innovation most people have. The reality is that there is much more to innovation than disruption. In fact, Christensen discussed another type of innovation, called “sustaining innovation,” which is not as radical.

In Dealing with Darwin, author Geoffrey Moore identified a complete taxonomy of 15 innovation types based on a product’s or service’s life-cycle maturity. In this taxonomy, disruptive innovation is most useful in growing markets, but it’s much less useful in mature and declining markets.

Innovative organizations realize that innovation comes in many forms. Therefore, rather than worrying about the disruptiveness of an idea, they focus on whether the idea can be effectively “sold” to a targeted market by adding value or meeting unmet customer needs.

Innovation must be a continuous activity, so organizational leaders need to reevaluate how they think about and approach innovation. They must realize that continuous innovation that can drive sustainable competitive advantage is much broader than disruptive “eureka” moments. Creating an organizational culture that embraces a philosophy of continuous innovation requires leaders to invest, nurture and sustain an open, collaborative environment in which innovation is viewed as a long-term journey that goes “where no one has gone before.”

Tarak Modi is vice president and chief technology officer at CALIBRE Systems. This article is based on a book he is writing, titled Living in the Innovation Age, due out at the end of this year. 


This article was originally published on 2011-12-07
Tarak Modi is a seasoned IT executive, certified enterprise architect and author of 70 articles and Professional Java Web Services.
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