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Friday, August 7, 2009

Innovation is more than invention

We thought we were home run hitters, but then we learned that we were born on third base. — Attributed to an AT&T alumnus
This quote by Stanford economist Tim Bresnhan (at Tuesday‘s State of the Net West conference) nicely captures the key problem facing innovative engineers working for any company smaller than the old Ma Bell.

Bell Telephone Laboratories had a better research staff (and working conditions) than all but a handful of universities. The monopoly profits of The Phone Company fueled some of the greatest inventions and scientific discoveries of the latter 20th century — things like lasers, satellites, information theory, etc. etc.

However, as this quote suggests, there are two reasons why such inventive output doesn’t provide a good measure of success:
  • It’s easy to bring technology to market (e.g. electronic switching, microwave long distance) if your captive customers comprise 90+% of the largest economy in the world.
  • When you can’t bring your expensive new technology to market, the guaranteed rate of return means there is no penalty for waste or inefficiency.
Invention is never enough. Except at Ma Bell, big innovations require (as Hank Chesbrough demonstrated in his Xerox studies) a business model and someone entrepreneurial enough to create a market if it doesn’t exist already.

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