Eclectic Curiosity

BIF-3 – Thursday

Posted on October 11th, 2007, by Steve Hardy in Archives, BIF-3. No Comments

Day 2 at BIF-3

The second day began with an outstanding morning session. And the first storyteller of that session was Irving Wladawsky-Berger, VP of Technical Strategy and Innovation at IBM and visiting professor of Engineering Systems at MIT. In an on-stage interview with Walt Mossberg, Wladawsky-Berger covered two main ideas in his 20 or so minutes: near-death and the future of learning. On the former, he spoke about how the things that make companies great – like mainframes were for IBM in the 70s and 80s – are typically their undoing. Why? Because management think the success is due to their brilliance and tend not to pay much attention to innovation, to what’s next. This prompted the question: is a near-death experience required in order for a company to reinvent itself. … On the latter, Wladawsky-Berger insists that virtual classrooms and meetings will be the next big evolution of the internet. The rise of virtual worlds (such as Second Life), the acceptance of distance learning, and the desire to seek the best specialist teachers all make virtual classrooms a likely killer app.

Also following the interview format, Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen was up next and, wow, was he ever great! I wish his time had been even longer because everything he said was brilliant. He started with some thoughts on current technological innovations before moving on to outline some of the core ideas in two of his forthcoming new books – one on health care and one on education systems. … “A business unit is designed not to evolve. It is designed to do the same things over and over.” The odds are overwhelmingly in favour of a market leader, he said. So for a competitor to unseat the leader it must be disruptive and come in from underneath rather than to inch over them. He used Apple’s iPhone as an example of a recent disruptive innovation, however he warned that what Apple’s likely done is set in motion massive innovative energy over at Nokia. We’ll see how that plays out. … Regarding health care, Christensen likened the current US system to the realm of mainframe computers – very expensive and very expertise driven. The reason health care is so expensive and inaccessible, he said, is because we have not allowed business innovation to complement it. His example revolved around how maladies are diagnosed and treated, noting that diagnosis and therapy can and should be separated because they function very differently. … On education, Christensen also used the mainframe metaphor. Back in the day, IBM could have re-engineered it if they wanted to because they had their hands on all of it. Nowadays it would be impossible to do because everything is so deeply fragmented. The education system is currently highly interdependent (prerequisites, facilities, teacher credentials, etc.) and this mandates standardization in the way we teach and test. But we all learn differently, and so a more modular approach would be better. “We need schools within schools,” Christensen noted, meaning that a business unit type of approach whereby computers and virtual classrooms are used according to student, subject and type, with human teachers spending more of their time on 1×1 instruction and support. … Expect these two books out in early 2008.

Up next was Stephen Lane, Co-Founder and CEO of a Rhode Island design consultancy called Item. His presentation was all about “the resuscitation bay of the future”, or in other words, building a better hospital trauma space. This is a real example of looking at a problem (the clutter, confusion, and critical time-waste), identifying an opportunity (reconfigure a complex, high tension interplay of equipment, supplies, staff and patients), and addressing it with systems thinking solutions. Curiously, the solution was inspired by the modularity of The Universal Kitchen project.

And yet another remarkable speaker in the morning session: Ellen Levy, Founding Managing Director of Silicon Valley Connect. She also serves as the Deputy Chair for the Global Health track within the Clinton Global Initiative and is an advisor or consultant on numerous other initiatives. She had me at hello. Her first slide turned the infamous “jack of all trades = master of none” mantra on its head by changing it to “master jack of all trades”. She recounted her challenge at Stanford of facilitating university-industry collaboration. “Universities are not approachable with questions. Who do you ask?” Universities are so bound by organizational structures – faculty and students, disciplines, schools, university admin – that it is often tough to find the right people even from inside universities. Levy’s approach has been to virtually focus the university on ideas, doing so without needing to restructure the institution itself. By doing so, industry gets ROI, university gets research of interest, and government gets results of importance. Her three guiding principles: 1) start with good questions, 2) take relationships over transactions, and 3) have sufficient metrics in place.

The second session was a Bill Taylor hosted series with three presenters and then a panel discussion with them. The loose theme was competing on ideas and having a strategy that resembled advocacy for a movement. First up was Robin Chase, former co-founder of Zipcar and current founder and CEO of GoLoco. GoLoco is a service that helps people quickly arrange to share rides between friends, neighbours, and colleagues. She ran through the reasons why we need to collectively innovate our transportation systems. The main reason, obviously, is climate change and the fact that 29% of emissions come from cars and car manufacturing. Sharing a similar view to Chris Benedict, who spoke yesterday, she believes that the business leaders are seeing now that efficiency is beneficial beyond just the environmental sphere. “People change on a dime when money is involved.” To that point, Chase is helping to lead the charge in making more efficient use of existing assets and systems. How can people build their own personal public transportation system?

Bill Herp then took the stage and expounded on his management philosophies as they relate to his new venture as President and CEO of Linear Air, a company offering private air travel using very small jets. Air taxis, basically. He covered many points but focused primarily on the importance of team-building and, related to that, focusing on individuals’ strengths more than their weaknesses.

And the last speaker of the morning session was Jack Hughes, the well-known Founder and Chairman of innovative software developer TopCoder. He sums up what they do as: “A commitment of non-affiliated individuals [programmers] working collectively and individually to create value.” He believes that work should be, and in many ways is becoming, more like play. People will gravitate towards what they’re good at and where their passion lies. TopCoder adds structure and compensation, he said, but “we let the workforce manage itself,” mainly through friendly competition.

Denise Nemchev, President of Stanley Bostitch, was probably BIF’s funniest and most charismatic speaker. And what was her story about? A nail. A simple construction nail called the Hurriquake which can more strongly withstand the pressures of natural disasters. Inspired by Katrina and other domestic disasters, Bostitch’s engineering team went to work on a fastener that could grip better, resist shear better, and reduce the instances of boards pulling through. It earned Bostitch Popular Science’s Innovation of the Year award, beating out flashier innovations in automotive design, surgery, and astronomy because it is a simple yet widely needed innovation that may save many lives and dollars.

Following Nemchev was Joseph Coughlin, Director of the Age Lab at MIT. The Age Lab is the first multi-disciplinary research program sponsored by government and business to understand the behavior of the 45+ population as decision-makers, consumers, patients, caregivers, advisors and technology users. Interviewed by Mossberg, Coughlin talked about baby boomers and how things will need to adapt because of them. For example, he suggested that Budweiser’s real innovation may not be selling beer but rather using its great distribution network to move energy drinks. He also mentioned that the future will be female – they live longer, they spend most of each household’s dollar, and they are usually the main caregiver – and he stressed that constant learning will grow in importance. “The new frontier is actually very old.”

BIF-3’s final storyteller was Mark Cuban, the famous billionaire technologist and outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He too was interviewed on-stage by Mossberg and, as one would expect, the conversation ranged widely – starting with Cuban encouraging the audience to vote for him on Dancing with the Stars. Other topics they covered included Cuban’s possible purchase of the Cicago Cubs, HDNet, Landmark Cinemas, PCs, the mobile industry, and his views on where technology – especially digital video – is heading. Those familiar with his blog will know what these are. Very sharp guy with lots of energy for his work, that was clear. “Every day I wake up knowing that there is a 12 year-old out there somewhere that’s trying to kick your ass. If you don’t pay attention to your business your ass will be kicked.”

An even better second (and last) day at BIF-3! For some different perspectives on the same event, please check out the posts, mindmaps, and podcasts by other BIF-3 Blogjam participants. Day 1 post is here.

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