Sunday, November 25, 2007

Preventer of Information Services?

As I lifted a stein of Bavarian lager and cut into my traditional pork knuckle, with the crackling to kill for, and with the light banter of German conversation between our host and the waiter, I had to stop for a moment to remember where I was. No, I wasn’t in Munich, but in a restaurant in Singapore, with Herbert Zwenger, who heads HP’s BCS group in Asia Pacific and Japan (AP/J).

The picture I have included here is of Merlion, the symbol of Singapore , and the ever-changing Singapore skyline. There is something about Singapore and the energy of the place that’s hard to describe and I always feel excited to be here. I love the seafood, and I am particularly fond of the chili crabs here – but that’s another story.

I had come to Singapore for a little downtime over Thanksgiving and to catch up with Herbert's team and only a week earlier I had been with Neil Pringle of HP EMEA. I had been impressed with Neil and with the performance of NonStop in EMEA, but Herbert was even more excited over the performance of his group, and wanted to make sure I understood how important this was for the NonStop community.

As Herbert and I continued to discuss his great results, I remembered that on one of my early visits with HP Herbert had arranged for me to visit HP’s Cool Town. If you ever get to Singapore and have a chance, this is something to see. HP engineers have set up a number of rooms, each room supporting one view of a future interaction with technology whether in the house, the office, or traveling, and it’s pretty impressive. It is a demonstration of how innovation has always been part of the HP culture.

A few weeks back, BT and Fortune magazine had held an Innovation Summit here in Singapore, bringing together a diverse group of industrialists and academics. In a statement from BT, which was widely reported in Singapore, BT said that the goal had been “to create a whole culture that focuses on how to get everybody in the organization – and more importantly, everybody who is a customer, or a partner – to help us innovate”!

I recalled reading this as we talked about Cool Town and the innovation that was coming out of the group supporting the program. And I also remembered reading on the plane a Fortune magazine (Nov 11, 07) special insert on “The Japan of the Future” where the writer explained how in Japan they now have a “Minister of Innovation” post that was set up by the former Prime Minsiter, Shinzo Abe, after he had established the “Innovation Strategy Group” - a committee that was also made up of business leaders and academics.

Help us innovate! The Minister of Innovation? All I could think about was that movie Nine Months, and the scene with Robin Williams where he introduces himself as the “Chief of Obstructions”! And about the Dilbert comic strip character Mordac, who introduces himself as “Mordac, the Preventer of Information Services”!

It’s probably not fair to make these associations and I have to believe that there are some pretty serious and well-intended folks working on fostering innovation across industry, but it does have a certain Monty Python feeling about it all the same. Do we really need formal structures and institutions in order to be innovative? Can we create an environment, where we can become better innovators, without institutionalizing the innovation process? And why is innovation crucial anyway?

The ability to innovate, and than adapt, is critical for any business today. There is little potential for remaining in business if we just stand still. I have always believed that one such “spontaneous innovation forum” does exist – the user group events. While this may not be obvious to everyone, every time we get together at these events, there is the potential for the spark of a new idea to ignite as a new opportunity is recognized. Direct customer and vendor engagement is just such a crucial component for any business keen to innovate.

When we come together: vendors, users, system integrators, consultants, as well as the primary vendor’s engineering staff, we create a wonderful mixing pot where ideas just keep percolating to the top. It’s part of the folklore here at my company, Goldengate, that it was during the last sessions at the 1994 ITUG event in Atlanta that Eric Fish began scribbling down ideas that led to the development of the GoldenGate product.

Anton Lessing, now a Director on the ITUG Board, told me that it was at his first ITUG user event in 2001, that he saw for the very first time that the Tandem platform was not a legacy technology. “I realized that Tandem was far from dead … and I realized that the platform was under-estimated and that, after my return to South Africa, it was going to become one of the cornerstones of our processing environment”, he went on to explain. “Through the contacts I made, my company has saved some 3 million ZAR Rands (approx US$400K) – and that is serious money for us”, he concluded.

I recently asked Bob Loftis, an HP NonStop product manager, if he still sees value in attending the event and whether it helps him in better understanding the users’ needs. “Yes, I find great value as an HP Product Manager in getting comments, opinions, experiences, wishes, directly from customers and partners at ITUG events”, he explained before going on to add “sometimes the length and duration of the work day at such events can be tiring, but the opportunity is worth it”.

Chris McAllister of GoldenGate, who many of you know pretty well, expressed similar view: “It’s not as though I buttonhole every attendee and ask them what they need next, or buy drinks for every HP Product Manager to find out what they plan to develop – I hope I am a little more subtle than that”, he assured me and then added “but the information that comes out of the panel sessions and during SIG discussions are really valuable and always provide the industry-level activity that we need to stay close to”.

And do we all take advantage of this? For me, innovation is always about the interactions between individuals, not about dependence on the creativity of a single individual. It is the free flow of information and the presentation of different points of view that triggers an innovative idea. Participation in a user group means you become exposed to a broad range of ideas and suggestions – a cauldron of experiences that can greatly influence where you can take your business next. Vendors understand this and demonstrate their understanding year after year through the financial support they provide for the User Groups activities.

I asked Deirdre Mahon, Golden Gate’s Marketing head, what her take on this was, and she responded “We maintain a high profile at select user and industry events – it’s just the way we do business. It is very important to maintain close contact with all of our customers and these HP events are a great forum to conduct an open dialogue – and usually in a social setting”, she added. Deirdre then added another thought “while we do have our own customer events and have many other options, the ITUG event has always remained high on our list of priorities when it comes to direct customer engagement”.

Innovation is important – it’s what puts distance between those individuals and corporations that are successful and those that fail. I find it very hard to believe that it can be mandated – no one has even said to an employee: “go off and create something useful”! The efforts of business leaders and academics to drive innovation provides encouragement to take risks and reflects an understanding that many of us just have to get better at creative thinking, but in the end it really does come down to the decisions taken by a few key individuals to empower us to innovate.

HP has a tradition of being innovative. Many of the partners too, have demonstrated innovative ideas and have been particularly good at addressing market opportunities in a timely manner. But you do need to interact with your peers and nowhere else can this be done as effectively or for as little cost, as at user events.

I remain as convinced as ever that our future will always look good and we will continue to innovate, as long as we have forums that encourage an open exchange of ideas. Maybe we still find the chief of obstructions lurking around, and perhaps the preventers of information services remain with us as well, but hopefully, and with just a little prodding, we can continue to innovate despite them!

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