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Carl Olofson on Innovation

by Roberto V. Zicari on November 24, 2008

Here is another interview on Innovation. This time with Carl Olofson, IDC.

Carl Olofson performs research and analysis for IDC’s Information Management and Data Integration Software service within the Application Development and Deployment research group. Mr. Olofson’s research involves following sales and technical developments in the information and data management (IDM) markets, database management systems (DBMS) markets, data movement and replication software, data management software, metadata management software, and the vendors of related tools and software systems. Mr. Olofson also contributes overview and data integration research content to Integration and Deployment Software, which covers developments in software technologies that manage the overall integrated deployment of applications developed and maintained using application development and deployment software. Mr. Olofson also advises clients on market and technology directions as well as performing supply and demand-side primary research to size, forecast, and segment the database market.

Mr. Olofson has 30 years of experience in IT, including two years of application development consulting, 10 years of database and tools software development, four years of product consulting, and three years as a senior product manager.
In 2000, Mr. Olofson received IDC’s highest award, the James Peacock Memorial Award for professional excellence in market research. Prior to joining IDC, Mr. Olofson worked at Cayenne and Cadre, where he was involved with directing the management for ObjectTeam products, including an object-oriented CASE tool and a component construction and assembly tool. He was also responsible for product packaging, pricing, requirements analysis, sales force preparation, and product roll-out. Prior to that, Mr. Olofson managed customer relations and performed sales support for MSP in promoting its mainframe repository, METHODMANAGER. He also worked at LBMS, where he led a team of eight engineers working on a repository technology research program; and at Cullinet where he was responsible for the Cullinet CASE strategy. In addition, Mr. Olofson worked for eight years in project teams developing the IDMS, IDD, ADS/Online, and Online Mapping products.

1. What is “Innovation” for you?
Innovation is the development of new approaches to solving problems. These can include actual inventions, but also new processes, new ways of thinking, and improvements on existing machines, processes, and ways of thinking that result in their being used in new ways.

2. Who are your favorite innovators?
It’s tempting to list inventors, since they are obviously high profile innovators, but I find that most inventors don’t really know how their inventions are going to be used. Thomas Edison, for instance, expected the phonograph to be used mainly for taking and playing back dictation (the Dictaphone was a spin-off), and that motion pictures would mainly be used for industrial training. He was a very serious, work-oriented person who could not imagine spending hard-earned money on a machine that had, as its sole purpose, entertainment.

My favorite innovators are people who read a need, and come up with a new way to meet that need. Sam Walton, for instance, rethought the concept of discount retailing, and realized that the key differentiator was efficiency. Using IT strategically, he created the Wal-Mart empire. Sir Richard Branson understood that a key to success, whether in retail (audio, specifically) or services (such as air transportation) was an excellent customer experience, and from that built the Virgin companies. Along similar lines, in terms of IT strictly, Steve Jobs drove his engineers at Apple to concentrate on creating not only a pleasing, but distinctively signature user experience in all their products, which has enabled the Macintosh to survive the Windows onslaught and also ensured the success of the iPod, iPhone, et al.

3. What do you consider are the most promising innovations of the last 3 years?
Most innovations that reach public awareness are things that have existed, or at least been under development, for at least 10 years. Thus, a major technical innovation of the past three years is the latest demonstration of miniaturized technical integration that I call the integrated mobile information device, but which is more commonly called, for legacy reasons, the “cell phone”. It is a telephone, of course, but it’s also a text messaging device, e-mail client, Internet browser and, in some cases, a music player, a camera, a networked PDA, and a push-to-talk audio transformer (a.k.a., “walky-talky”). In the near future, I expect it to also be a GPS navigator and mobile television set (with DVR capability). Lots of people also use it as a pocket watch. It has replaced the land line telephone for a whole generation of users (who don’t live where I do, which is to say, they must live where they get fairly reliable signal service). It replaces the older “brick” style cell phone, as well as the pager, the PDA, pocket camera, watch, and even the MP3 player. The key innovation was daring to see a single device as capable of filling a wide variety of purposes, many of which were regarded previously as unrelated.

4. What does it help to become a successful innovator?
A successful innovation is not just a new idea, it is a practical one that solves real problems. Successful innovators are usually commercially successful because they meet a market need. That doesn’t always include the original inventor of the underlying technology, unfortunately, and engineers are often poor promoters of their technology, or attempt to introduce their technology at the wrong time, before the market is ready. A successful innovator has the right idea at the right time, and knows how to sell it.

5. Is there a price to pay to be an innovator? Which one?
The big mistake that most innovators make is that they fall in love with their innovation, and expect that it will always prevail in its market. Such individuals typically fail to adjust when competitors arise who offer “almost as good” for less, or otherwise exploit the general idea, diluting the business opportunity, and leaving original innovator as a relic. The IT industry is full of innovators each of whom successfully exploited one great idea, then tried to milk it beyond its expiration date and came up with nothing original again. Any innovator should, as soon as the innovation proves successful, move on to the next new idea, and not look back. Repeat innovators always do that.

6. What are the rewards to be an innovator?
There are both financial rewards and the ability to point to something that is his/her own idea.

7. What are in your opinion the top 3 criteria for successful innovation?
1) It must address a practical need.
2) It must represent a new idea, or a new take on a classic idea.
3) It must actually work, and be embraced and adopted by a significant constituency.

8. What would you recommend to young people who wish to pursue innovation?
Firstly, have a good understanding of what you know and do well, then find ways that your knowledge, insights, and abilities can address an unmet need of a large number of people. Then, figure out how your solution can be explained to, adopted, and used by those people, and finally, be prepared to work long and hard to make your solution a reality.

9. In your opinion how can we create a culture that supports and sustains innovation?
We need to encourage inquisitiveness, curiosity, imagination, and independent thinking. Our society has a depressingly large degree of “herd mentality” thinking, and I fear the highly programmed nature of many kids’ upbringing these days tends to depress independence in thought and action. Promoting science and technology, including technical competition
, is important as well.

10. What do you think stops/slows down innovation?
Excessive caution, conformity, lack of imagination and initiative. Also, the current climate of popular culture, which seems to denigrate science in particular and intellectual excellence in general.

10+1 .Do you think becoming an innovator can be taught? If yes, how?
No, but the qualities I outlined above can be encouraged in the way courses are taught and kids are raised, and those qualities in turn lead to innovation.

10+2. What is in your opinion the influence that a “location” (country/region) plays with respect to the possibility to be a
successful innovator?

10+3. What would you recommend to make a “location” attractive for innovation?
If by “location” you mean physical location, then I guess the presence of educational institutions, a highly competitive environment, and venture capital would be pretty key. Innovation can happen anywhere, though.

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