Both Sides of Innovation

“I’ve looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose, and still somehow, it’s life’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know life, at all,” sang Joni Mitchell in the ’60s.

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Sometimes, innovation in automation seems a little like that. There are two sides to innovation, and sometimes progress seems as if it were an illusion.

Jim Pinto ponders innovation in this month’s column (see Automation Creativity Sleeps) and concludes that innovation comes from small companies that get started with new ideas. Jim’s not the first, and I’m sure he won’t be the last, entrepreneur who sold his company to a large company and then wondered what happened—and then told me about it. So the question remains, is it an “urban myth,” or is it really hard for large organizations to innovate?

I follow the manufacturing automation market, of course. I also follow the “high-tech” market. One reason for this is that suppliers of manufacturing automation have been following the technology curve of these developers. I’ve been told that more money is spent in high-tech research and development than the total revenues of manufacturing automation. One thing I’ve noticed in both markets is that large companies often bring innovative ideas into the company through acquisition. They acquire technologies, intellectual property and people.

Many innovative software companies have been acquired only to languish in their new homes. This has happened within Google and Microsoft as well as in companies more familiar to the work of Automation World readers. On the other hand, I’ve seen some successes where new technologies have been incorporated to extend aging product lines and bring them into contemporary architectures. So I suspect that acquisitions are a bit of a crapshoot. Sometimes the technologies just don’t integrate the way executives thought they would. Or sometimes the new people have such culture shock that they just can’t maintain momentum. Or sometimes it’s a great fit.

We automatically think of innovation in positive terms. Innovative ideas will serve customers better than the current state of the art. They will create wealth for the developers and enable customers to be more profitable, efficient, effective. On the other hand, there exists the Law of Unanticipated Consequences. Adding networking capability to industrial automation has enabled a river of data, providing the potential for producers and manufacturers to do more with less investment, improve operations, increase productivity, improve quality, speed products to customers and more.

Other-side perils

On the other side, though, lie the perils of opening up systems. This summer, the Stuxnet worm specifically targeted Siemens process control systems. News of the infections and their possible effects on process control systems continue into the fall. In this issue, Managing Editor Wes Iversen lays out a clear picture of the latest thinking on defending against invaders (see p. Defending Against the Next Stuxnet). Control engineers never had to worry about this sort of attack before. Now it’s top of mind. Now we need innovation to counter attacks created by the last innovation.

While I was pondering innovation, a blog post popped up in my RSS Feed Reader titled, “Everything I Needed To Know About Social Media I Learned In Kindergarten” (http://bit.ly/aCKFuQ). Angela Maiers taught kindergarten for a year, early in her career, and considers that experience life forming. Watching and interacting with the kids she learned:
•   Notice beauty and wonder all around me
•   Never take a day, or even an hour for granted
•   Find evidence of life and growth in the most unlikely of places
•   Listen with a mind and heart wide open
•   Dream big and celebrate little.

When I’m evaluating companies I watch for the passion and joy of the people. That is the foundation of innovation.

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