Bobby Varanasi, Chairman & CEO, Matryzel Consulting and Executive Committee, Malaysia Australia Business Council
Globalization has enabled businesses to conduct border-less transactions, vying for a growing pie of global growth and consumption. Modern technological innovations have assisted with reducing drag, building momentum and market accesses hitherto the doyen of (only) large enterprises. Disruptions to traditional ways of doing businesses has come a full circle, with technology platforms replacing human endeavor at its most transactional levels. The internet may have removed borders to trade, yet a significant number of people worldwide remain distant from the benefits of the digital revolution. A new battleground has emerged where technology vendors parade the most modern technologies with seeming abandon to their applicability in localized contexts.
Innovation is increasingly being seen as a function of the technologies deployed, as opposed to the problems the idea is meant to resolve. Deliberations around technology and innovation reflect interchangeability not envisaged as a function of value anymore. In other words, you are an innovator because of some great technologies you may have deployed, not because you may have solved some thorny problems. They are inconsequential, and don’t get you browny points with inclusion into the elite group ala Google or Apple or Microsoft.
"The foremost need is to ensure markets and contributing individuals understand what innovation means, and what it does not"
I am reminded of a very poignant observation made by Neil Postman in his book titled “Technopoly – Surrender of Culture to Technology”. He says, “The technopolist of today stands firm in believing that what the world needs is yet more information. Attend any conference on telecommunications or computer technology, and you will be attending a celebration of innovative machinery that generates, stores, and distributes more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than ever before. To the question, ‘what problem does the information solve?’ the answer is usually ‘how to generate, store and distribute more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than ever before’. This is the elevation of information to a metaphysical status: information as both the means and end of human creativity. In Technopoly, we are driven to fill our lives with the quest to “access” information. For what purpose or with what limitations, it is not for us to ask; and we are not accustomed to asking, since the problem is unprecedented. The world has never before been confronted with information glut and has hardly had time to reflect on its consequences.” Isn't this what we are confronted with every day?
While there are various ways that innovation has been defined, most are predominantly stuck in the “new”, and almost inextricably married to “technology”. However, in the larger context of economics, and civil society, innovation takes on meanings far greater than understood. C.K. Prahalad,an award winning author ranked # 1 in Top 50 Most Influential Thinkers” by Thinkers 50simple yet extremely significant articulation of innovation is worth understanding: things. “any solution that identified and addressed unmet needs, or any approach driven by a need for advancement, improvement or a better way of doing things could be termed innovative”. In this context innovation has come to mean manyAt the strategic level, it’s a departure from traditional protocols/ processes toward more collaborative, multi-pronged and inter-dependent pursuits; at an operational level it’s about changing the manner in which functions work and contribute to an organization’s outcomes; at a technology level it’s about the manner in which technologies are adopted, and how the utility value they help create are measured / accounted for. The greatest and perhaps the most poignant test of all is that any beneficial innovation results in unshackling the human spirit.
As we ponder the above, the question surrounding how to drive innovation becomes a crucial point to appreciate. Typically, the following questions precede any innovation endeavors. Is intellectual property being created? Are flexible products and services that enable realization of customer benefits perceptively being created? Are new needs of customers, employees and civil society being addressed? Are changes continuous or disruptive? Is the degree of disruption pushing customers and employees to the tipping point? Is the tipping point a precursor to something beneficial or detrimental? Are corporate support structures flexible enough to accommodate continuous changes? Is the responsibility of success of products/ services a shared accountability?
The foremost need is to ensure markets and contributing individuals understand what innovation means, and what it does not. Such competence would permit us to recognize innovation when it confronts us, while also taking a less-than-emotional approach in the face of products/ solutions peddled as the next best thing that’s ever happened to humanity. The one crucial lesson I have learned is that euphoria almost always dilutes one’s ability to assess an idea for its worth. Instead it pushes an emotive stance where inputs become heroes, or worse, are treated as critical to success. The consequential maze that one ends up is an unfettered pursuit at enhancing inputs. The need or goal driving innovation in the first place is then lost. The seemingly small, useful, yet highly impactful innovations governing humanity today don’t seem to pass the benchmark in the context of today’s pigeonholed definitions of innovation. And that is a significant problem. I have been witness to leaders pursuing technology for its own sake, for its modernity, and for its apparent sophistry. However innovation is not a slave to technology, and it shouldn’t become one.
As fast-growing nations and companies embark on their transformational journeys by leveraging technologies it is crucial that they appreciate inherent limitations. Any endeavor devoid of a plug into environment, civil society, and socio-economic value is nothing more than a pursuit of modernity. I believe it is high time economies and youth recognize their capacity to innovate, pursue such endeavors with utility value in mind and measure needs as the barometers to success.