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Worlds beyond analysis

Worlds beyond analysis

Businesses tend to get lost in the quest of the Big Idea. But effective innovations in enterprise are a result of simpler and more focused steps, notes Michael Schrage, senior adviser to MIT's Security Studies Program and the author of Serious Play: How the World's Best Companies Simulate to Innovate.

For one, a collaborative environment is bound to breed innovation, he says. Then, the technology apps must be built for use. Or as Schrage would say, "Innovation isn't what innovators do....it's what customers and clients adopt." Most importantly, the implementation of the idea and the lessons thereof pave the way for better innovations. In this interview to CIO India, replete with cases from Schrage's own experience, he delves into each step along the way towards "user experience" -- the best proof of an innovation.

It is a buzz phrase for the man who has come a long way from being Rolling Stone columnist on the technology of music to an advisor/consultant to companies such as Accenture, Johnson & Johnson, and British Telecom. As a senior adviser at MIT today, Schrage explores the role of models, prototypes and simulations as collaborative media for managing innovation and risk.

CIO: You have written on the need for 'shared spaces' in enterprises. How can a CIO bring about collaboration?

Michael Schrage: There is a very simple answer to that: a CIO can't. Nobody can do that. The idea that an individual can be responsible for other people sharing -- if you will forgive me for speaking like an American -- is like socialism. It failed. Organizations do not want a Collaboration Czar, but somebody who makes tools and mechanisms to make it easier for people to share. You want to have a culture of exchange, of trade, and of sharing.

The question is not about how you get people to share, but how you create an environment where it makes sense to share. Just 10 years ago, IT companies were selling knowledge management systems. Remember how you had to fill all these forms, which cost millions of dollars? And how many of them are alive today? None, because it cost millions. Now, you have wikis and blogs, and you allow people to link. How much does that cost? Hundreds of dollars, if that.

And how are they doing? They are much better now. Are there flaws because they are semi-structured? Yes, but if you combine their search engine and do tagging in a different way, then all of a sudden, you get 90 percent of the benefits of a knowledge management system for less than 10 percent of the cost. And people are volunteering to do it. You aren't telling them to do it.

It's not a CIO's role to have everybody love each other. His role is to provide tools and technologies that make it easier for people to do what they want to do. If you want to have people collaborate, you must have the culture for it. How do you do you that? Give them collaborative tools. That's what my book (Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration) was about: collaborative tools.

What factors are conducive to a shared environment in an organization?

When I was doing work on Shared Minds, I studied 60-70 organizations, including those that had great success and those that had no success adopting collaborative tools. This correlation came up: the organizations that had the most effective adoption and deployment of collaborative tools were those that did 360-degree job reviews.

If you think about it, it's obvious. Because in the old hierarchy, you didn't care about what other people said. The only person you cared about was the person you reported to. But if you have a 360-degree review, you better be collaborative. Because if you don't, they'll say, "Doesn't collaborate, didn't help us... didn't share."

Now, not everything has to stay 360-degrees; that can vary. But if you have an environment where it becomes silly and counterproductive not to collaborate, people are going to err on the side of collaboration. I would like to point out that as much as I like collaboration, I believe that it is a means to an end just like innovation. When you collaborate in business, you want to make sure that you accomplish something. Sometimes, collaboration is important. Sometimes, coordination is important. But if a client has asked us to do something that I or you can't do individually, then we would be idiots not to collaborate.

Such challenges have forced leadership of organizations to rethink what kind of working environments they want to create. My belief is that for a lot of business challenges of the future particularly dealing with multiple cultures and markets, collaboration is efficient -- not a waste. I think Infosys and Wipro have discovered that as their clients become more demanding, they have to collaborate differently with their clients and internally.

Are there trends in innovation that are unique to India?

I have one intellectual prejudice about India based on my interactions with well-educated Indians in organizations and at MIT. Highly-educated Indians believe in the virtue of analysis. On average, they sometimes spend more time analyzing a problem than doing a quick experiment because they believe that they will get a better return on analysis than on iterative experimentation.

Indian businesses, particularly overseas, will be more effective if they can better balance their analytical skills and their modeling, iterative and interactive skills. In the past five-six years, I think that Infosys and Wipro have moved away from analyzing things to basically sending people to customer sites and observing and saying, 'What if you tried this?' So, some companies are coming up with a better balance.

But I don't want to pick on the Indians. The reality is that intellectual organizations are inclined to do analysis. In the US, in the sphere of engineering, we have a tradition of tinkering. I don't know what the Indian tradition is, but in my view if you pass the exams at IIT, it is because you are good at analyzing. We need to be careful that our major strengths don't become our weaknesses. If you are very good at improvising, you spend less time on process. That's good for a while, but you still should be paying attention to process.

How far have CIOs come in understanding the need to innovate towards what customers and clients adopt?

The most damaging criticism that can be made of CIOs is that they have done a much better job of understanding what technologies can do in terms of features and functions, rather than getting users to take advantage of those features and functions.

Let's be serious: we have Google and social networking, but how many organizations have good search capabilities? Most people are shocked, disappointed and angry that they can do better search and e-mail outside their organization than inside it. Six years ago, that wasn't true. Outside-the-firewall innovation is driving inside-the-firewall demand. Why? Because people are using it. What is easier to use: Oracle databases or Google?

Amazon, eBay, Orkut and Myspace -- all these offerings are successful not because they are the most sophisticated technologies, but because they are designed for ease of use. If you are in business, that's what you need to focus on. I see fascinating technologies all the time, but some of it never leaves the laboratory because people like the idea more than they like the notion of people using the idea. It's only when technical innovators focus on how people will get value from an idea that they begin to address ease of use, accessibility, intuitive interfaces, allowing people to learn from interaction. This is not easy. Very gifted technical people find it hard to collaborate with people who want to make their complex innovation more accessible to others.

You can't have consistent performance without accessible, usable and transparent performance. You want the technology to be usable. You want it to be understood and upgradable. So, each step of the way, you can add value and create a virtuous cycle of innovation.

Can you share stories of organizations that cut out complexity?

The real advantage of the Web technologies in general and Web 2.0, in particular, is that it has forced people to closely couple the backend and front-end. Google has a very complex search engine. Amazon has a complex recommendation engine, but it's easy for users to access both. Remember, as complex as these engines are, they are designed and thought out to be usable. Accessibility is not just an IT issue. Intuitive-usability issues transcend product design and process- and services-design.

In your experience, how do prototypes stack up against their final versions?

It is a complete bell curve distribution! Some of them are exactly the same, while some go in the exact opposite direction. A prototype is a hypothesis. The problem is a lot of people come up with prototypes, and view it as a version of the finished product. My point is: it's a hypothesis -- what do you want to learn?

Some people like to learn and will change. Others will say, 'The wrong customer is interacting with us.' Take Google, for example. What kind of company is Google? A search company? Wrong, I say. It's not a search company. It's an instant-search company? Let's say, Google improved the quality of the search but you'd have to wait six minutes to get a result. How valuable would Google then be? Not much. How do we know that it is positioning itself as an instant-search company? Because Google has a minimalist design, but the one thing they always show you is the time taken for a search.

It may seem obvious, but it's not. You have to have an idea of the user experience.

New market segments create new opportunities for innovation -- and new innovations create new market segments. Prototypes are as good as how much you learn from them.

So what catches your eye when you see a prototype? Are there any features that are unique to them?

When an organization presents me with a model or a version of an innovation, my question to them is always: what does the prototype ask you to do?' What did Google ask you to do? Type in a word. What did eBay ask you to do? Put something up for bid.

Second, in exchange for using the innovation, what value does it give the user? And what are you asking the user to do? If you ask him to learn individual linear programming, he'd probably do it if you let him into IIT or MIT.

The designers of an innovation need to be very aware of what they are asking users to do. They have to bring that kind of design sensibility to the prototype. It should tap into one's curiosity for the value, but must also ask the user to do something reasonable in return.

In your experience, how much space does top management give to an innovator to focus on a prototype?

It depends on the company. Genuinely-good top managements make it easy for teams to self-assemble. They cast the original team, but create an environment for collaboration. Good leaders, I've observed, put people in a position to succeed. They don't do so by giving a person everything he wants, but by giving him a legitimate challenge and resources to succeed, and by having an honest mechanism to study what they have learnt and what they have not.

My father has a saying: never show fools unfinished work. Some top-managements cannot appreciate a technical prototype, so show them the finished product. Management needs to create a vision and a strategic intent of the enterprise that makes it easy for people to say, "If that's our goal and what we're going to be measured on, these are the kinds of innovations we need to be exploring. And these are the kinds of prototypes we should be building inside with key suppliers and key customers."

You're a technology writer, a consultant and an MIT adviser. What is the common thread?

My main interest has been popular culture and the business of popular culture. As we have seen in the music industry, changes in technology determine the business of pop culture. An iPod or Napster can completely transform this business. That's one of the reasons why I have remained interested in technology because it isn't interesting just as a productivity tool -- it is also interesting as a cultural influence and an enabler of cultural change.

I wrote an essay some years ago about how technology is not about information revolution, but about changing relationships. Technologies revolutionize how we manage relationships more than how we manage information. For example, mobile phones are about managing relationships. Texting is about managing relationships. Networking a video game in World of Warcraft and virtual worlds -- that is a social experience or a pop culture experience.

So, I have been interested in the double-edge: technology as culture and technology as a tool.

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