I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Innovation Exhaustion

"We've tried nothin' and we're all out of ideas."

-- Ned Flanders' mom, "The Simpsons", season 8 episode 8: Hurricane Neddy

We're constantly being told by the popular business press that we live in an "ideas economy," where survival is a function of disruption because consumer behaviors and emerging technologies are conspiring to obsolete the economics of established businesses. There are plenty of examples - music publishing, mass-market retailing, local transportation - where new entrants have left a wake of creative destruction in their path.

Management consultants love to trot this stuff out, because fear of the unknown (who will destroy your company?) twined with tantalizing prospects of runaway riches (you could be the next air-b-n-amazon-uber-twit-book!) make for eager and pliable clients.

What those management consultants don't tell you is, it's expensive being in the ideas business. R&D isn't cheap: there is far more demand for engineering labor than there are engineers to be hired. And, a lot of R&D is terminal: you have to try a lot of things before you find something that pays for itself. Costly research that tells you only what not to do is cold comfort when you're trying to figure out what it is you should be doing.

It also appears that the economics of the "ideas economy" have been slowly eroding for a very long time. According to this paper, the number of people working in research has grown at a much faster rate than economic growth. Consider semiconductors: "The number of researchers required to double chip density today is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the 1970s." Inflation has risen only 6.5 times since 1970. Yowza.

Of course, that could mean there are too many slackers in research jobs, or that we have more eggheads than our economies can afford. But the real culprit seems to be a scarcity of ideas: they're just getting harder to find. As Izabella Kaminska wrote in the FT, "if research productivity is declining it stands to reason it is being offset by increased research effort. This essentially implies that it is getting harder to find new ideas as research progresses."

A big reason for this is economic maturation. There were far more impressive productivity gains in the early stages of the industrial revolution and microcomputer revolution than there were later in their respective lifecycles: the once factories were mechanized and all the back-office accounting computerized, the big and easy gains were made.

But even Amazon is showing signs of innovation fatigue. In the last 6 years, sales are up 5x, but employee headcount is up 10x. Liabilities are growing as fast as cash, suggesting free cash flow isn't improving with time. And, Amazon's growth rate is far lower than what Wal-Mart's was at a similar point in its history. If growth has slowed, capital intensity is up, and total labor spend is up, either platform monopoly economics aren't what we think they're supposed to be or they will take a very, very long time to materialize. This isn't to say Amazon isn't going to grow, or be a threat to traditional retailers and other industries, but it is to say that even Amazon is showing evidence of idea exhaustion.

What about the major disruption that appears to be on the horizon, like distributed ledger technology?

Blockchain could eliminate redundancies across companies, reduce fees for simple transfers, and usher in all kinds of innovation. It can, but the economics won't materialize as rapidly as ideas of yore. As long as the network is stubbornly difficult to secure and access, trust will remain with the institutions using the network, not the network itself. As long as trust remains with institutions and not the network, the institutions will have no choice but to maintain their own ledgers for a long time. That means that companies in ecosystems that adopt distributed ledger technology will find opportunities for innovation and gain some efficiencies, but will not be able to exploit its full potential for quite some time. Innovation and productivity from disruptive ideas, while still present, will fall short of potential.

This is the storyline with all emerging disruptive technologies. We may get autonomous long-haul trucks but we will still require drivers in the cab, we have shared ledgers but a lot of that data will remain duplicated throughout consuming organizations, we allow initial coin offerings but we regulate them as securities. There are economic benefits, sure, but the economic windfall they promise is just out of reach. That revolutionary new economy is delayed at the airport.

The chattering classes are telling us that we live in an "ideas economy" a full half-century after it was ripe to traffic in ideas. A more appropriate term might be the "ambition economy", because to reap the benefits of the possible requires a significant break away from the known and familiar. That's more than innovation driven by a single firm; it requires moving ecosystems of consumers, suppliers and regulators.

For those caught in the crossfire - firms that don't much like the prospect of winning a participant trophy in a costly innovation arms race, and don't have the gravitas to lead ecosystem change - what alternative do you have? We'll look at the options next month.