The iceberg and the storm

Putting change into a process because we want to try out the latest computer is not progress, says Control contributor Dick Morley. We seem only to watch as process implementation cries out for innovation.

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Other VoicesBy Dick Morley, CONTROL Contributor

In late September, I visited Cambridge, Mass., and attended the MIT Emerging Technology Conference.  Why?  ‘Cause I try to go where no Morley has gone before. It is important to discover new ideas—and these come from the unexplored regions of the intellect.

My impressions of the ETC/MIT non-virtual blog fest are controversial. I elected to write about what I was thinking during the sessions instead of describing each one in detail.

Travelogs can be boring. Cambridge during the week is no different from any other city. The weather was good, and the traffic was not. Alas, the conference took place right after the latest student “hack”—a fire truck put up on the MIT dome in memory of the firefighters in NYC—was taken away. Missed this grand sight by “that much.” (Check wikipedia.org for more on MIT hacks.)

The lectures were held in the Kresge Auditorium, a grand old lady on the campus. Wanna know more? Go to www.technologyreview.com/events for a mulitmedia presentation of the event.

Enough of the references. Inside, the audience was loaded with laptops, and the ether was saturated with wireless access to our interactive games. Most of the laptops were Macs. We want images, not spreadsheets. Not many of us know how to program spreadsheets (must be part of the technical person’s DNA and our bipolar attitudes).

The theme of the conference was emerging technologies and their short-term impact in the near future. Many speakers emphasized the importance of innovation and research. Some even tried to define innovation. Most of the presentations were given by the older, but smart suits from academia and business.

One of the best speakers was Jeff Bezos, the Amazon.com grand pooh-bah. He defined Amazon’s role as that of being a “cardboard manager”—selling and delivering anything that comes in a box. The original company vision was books-in-a-box. Now anything goes.

Other companies define their businesses in equally unexpected ways. Mercedes doesn’t sell cars; it sells a lifestyle statement. Playboy and Harley sell fantasy, and Apple sells music. What’s in an iPod? Think music, not hardware.

Many of the discussions were centered on innovation, with most attendees agreeing that innovation is real, not hype. But just what is innovation anyway?

I think it meets the same criteria Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used for porn: “I know it when I see it.” Most of the audience agreed and threw out the following observations to help narrow the definition: An innovator is forever a teenager and throws tantrums. An entrepreneur is an innovator who has passed through puberty. Engineering improves the breed and makes things better, cheaper and faster.

Engineering solves problems. Innovation creates problems. Most innovation comes from people outside the domain of expertise. Innovators can be anybody.

Most of the speakers felt that innovation can be taught, but I disagree—no training is necessary. There are many innovators lurking in the closet, and we can help open the door, but we can’t change innate behavior or grant special insight.

An IBM interview of many CEOs has shown that they think:

  • Business innovation pays off
  • Two-thirds of enterprise innovation comes from outside
  • If you think you have all the answers, you are wrong
  • Most rejection of new ideas is inside the company
  • Change can only happen if the CEO is behind it

We think that this is the innovation age. Not so. We forget fish hooks, fire and the wheel. Twice as many patents were issued in the early 1900s as today. Distance, time and familiarity diminish importance.
My dad would talk to some of my visiting young MBAs. They would complain about the D.C. politics, the latest recession and tax laws. After they left, Dad would say, “Don’t they know this has happened five times before?”

Recently, I gave a speech about the future of technology. The host was a small city in New England. The town was rated by Forbes magazine as one of the best places to live, but near the bottom of the list in economic growth.

Hm-m-m. Why was that, I wondered.

I then examined the promises made by the local politicians on both sides of the aisle. Some of the promises were cleaner parks, more police, less crime and so on…

These are comfort issues, not economic issues.

Where is the Wal-Mart park, the industrial incubators and the outreach education with computers? Education is a much-talked-about issue, but we cannot teach real science because of the political pressure to be politically correct. We are building the ghost towns of the future. Youngsters are leaving the towns because we are focusing on retirement and comfort. There are no quality jobs, and we don’t seem to be interested in our grandchildren. The icebergs are melting, and we seem only to watch.

As one of the pundits said, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

What does this mean to the working process engineer? We should not dwell on the latest standards and play in our sandbox. Putting change into a process because we want to try out the latest computer is not progress. We, as well as our management, should think about what we do and why we are doing it. Innovation is not just components, systems and toys.  Innovation also is a part of how we think.

A parable is welling up inside my skull. A well-run enterprise in the Midwest has a rule: “Thou shalt not have any assets over five years old.” The president of this privately owned company actually audits the dates on the machine assets. If the equipment is over five years old, it is sold, and new assets purchased,  meaning his competition has outmoded machines, and he has the high productivity of new processes. It also means his grumpy plant manager has to think about innovation. The real strategic needs of the process are reevaluated, and the new assets are better targeted for both customer and company needs.

Remember, process implementation needs innovation, and we are the source. Open the door.


  About the Author
Dick MorleyCredited with creating both the modern PLC and building automation control system, Dick Morley quit working so he could toil in a barn in New Hampshire. He lives in his wife Shirley’s house and can be contacted at morley@barn.org.
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