In a previous post, I wrote about the growing importance of combinatorial digital innovation. The research note “Seize the Technology Advantage With Combinatorial Digital Innovation” (for clients) expands on this and offers three ways to achieve it. Today is “National Inventor’s Day” in USA and I thought I will share something I recently learned in this area.
Combinatorial digital innovation is the practice of using components of different digital technologies and trends together to uncover new or better value. The premise of this research is that the pace and rate at which technologies and innovations emerge will only increase and using them together for new and better things will be an important source of differentiation for companies.
Recently, I listened to a TED radio hour podcast about originality. In this podcast, specialists from different creative arts made the argument that all that humans create is not original but based on prior work. It made me realize that combinatorial innovation also occurs using previous inventions, technologies, and innovations from the same field. The program uses examples from music, movies, and fashion. It seems “La Di Da Di” is the most heavily sampled song across multiple genres of music. Even many a recent artist has used parts or aspects of that song, either by itself or mixing with other songs. Further, many of the songs that have served as samples are themselves based on prior songs. This goes further and further back. This is not only in music. In movies, old stories and ideas are mixed and re-used. In fashion, copying seems more normal and accepted.
All these points out the importance of deeply looking at prior ideas, good or bad. We do see the application of this in tech companies – for instance, social media networks or smartphones had many failed precedents. In “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution”, Walter Issacson speaks about how silicon valley’s many pioneers relied on prior ideas. But prior ideas are rarely the source of inspiration in many technology investments and vendors. There is more of an obsession for process improvement and chasing technology trends.
One reason is that the culture in companies focuses on what is new and near. Technologies that are new and processes that are near get the attention. Employees do not have access to the history of older ideas, experiments, and innovations. I used to work in a large bank, one that was a remarkable pioneer in technology-driven banking. But I learned of their brave bets and technology experiments from the past through Wikipedia, not through any training or internal literature. The history of such bets and experiments are good fodder for new ideas. They also highlight a culture of innovation.
So, I think it will become vital for companies to preserve not just the code and design docs, but also their history of ideas and experiments. Companies should take care to preserve their stories on how ideas are formed, how they grow, challenges they face and how they succeed or fail. For companies to thrive in the future, a keen ability to peer into the past will be useful.