Is polymath the answer to IT innovation? [podcast]

Is polymath the answer to IT innovation? [podcast]

Summary: IT can be an organization's greatest innovation engine, but it has to think broader than it has in the past. We discuss how with Vinnie Mirchandani.

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech, CXO
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IT can be an organization's greatest innovation engine, but it has to think broader than it has in the past. We discuss how with Vinnie Mirchandani.

The Big Question is a joint production from ZDNet and TechRepublic that I co-host with ZDNet Editor in Chief Larry Dignan. This week's guest is Vinnie Mirchandani, author of the book The New Polymath.

You can play this 20-minute episode from the Flash-based player at the top of the page, read the full transcript below, or:

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Full transcript

Jason Hiner

Welcome to The Big Question Podcast, episode number 27 for April 14, 2010. I'm Jason Hiner.

Larry Dignan

And I'm Larry Dignan.

Jason Hiner

And this is a joint ZDNet and TechRepublic podcast where we pick one of the hottest issues in the tech world and attack it head-on. This week's big question: "Is polymath the answer to IT innovation?"

This episode is sponsored by TechRepublic's Guide to IT Policies and Procedures, which has over 100 customizable templates that IT leaders can use to really save some serious time and money. You can purchase a copy today and download it right away at policies.techrepublic.com.

This week's guest is Vinnie Mirchandani, Author of "The New Polymath" and a consultant to IT leaders. Vinnie, welcome to the show.

Vinnie Mirchandani

Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

Larry Dignan

So we're interested in hearing about The New Polymath. You've done a little tour of innovation around some of the big companies out there like GE and a bunch of others. And I guess for starters, just give us an overview of your book and what you found.

Vinnie Mirchandani

Thanks, Larry. So polymath is a Greek term for Renaissance man, you know, somebody like Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin, Isaac Newton, these guys were philosophers, they were artists, they were sculptors, they were designers. They were really good at many, many things.

The New Polymath, as my book defines it, is an enterprise which is very comfortable with a wide range of technologies. Not just information technology, but biotech, nanotech, increasingly cleantech. You know, you name it, the wide range of science and engineering disciplines that represents themselves in technologies.

It's able to a) be comfortable with those technologies; b) package them into new solutions that frankly, four to five years ago we couldn't think about, and they're allowing us to solve some really complex issues. They could be just IT-centric or they could be much broader ones

Jason Hiner

Excellent. So Vinnie, what are the...

Vinnie Mirchandani

Can I give an example here, guys?

Jason Hiner

Absolutely, go ahead, Vinnie.

Vinnie Mirchandani

Okay, so as an example, you have BASF, which is a German chip - chemical company. They are bioengineering the next generation of rice and corn and a bunch of other crops. So if you look at what they're doing around rice, they have one of the biggest genome databases in the world. So that clearly requires a level of sophisticated analytics and biotech information and data. In addition, they have a greenhouse in Belgium where they're monitoring literally thousands of rice seedlings. And every one of them has a RFID chip monitoring it - it's got a high-speed camera positioned on it. So they're watching these seedlings really closely in terms of how they evolve.

So if you look at all the technologies that are coming together there, BASF probably has 10 or 12 different strands of technology coming together in that quest for better rice.

If you look at GE, for example, they've announced something called a "net zero" home. Their vision is three to four years from now, we shouldn't have to pay any utility bills, but to be able to do that, they've had to bring together some solar technologies, wind technology. Wind technology historically has been difficult to scale down to a home level.

Jason Hiner

Did you say three to four years, Vinnie? Three to four years? Really?

Vinnie Mirchandani

That is their expectation.

Jason Hiner

Wow.

Vinnie Mirchandani

Now, Jason, I mean this is going to take a lot of capital investment in every home. And some states will be ahead of others because it assumes a smart grid from the utilities, it assumes a level of smart appliances at home. If people are willing to step up, yes, it will be there. But really, no - these things take a long time to deploy through the whole economy.

Jason Hiner

Sure. But you are saying that the technology will be capable within three to four years of getting to that level zero, which is what you're talking about is you're taking in (whether it was solar power and other kinds of ways) enough energy that you can give back to the grid, and that essentially makes up for what you are drawing from the grid. And you end up at about a zero balance on your account. Right?

Vinnie Mirchandani

Absolutely, you know in Germany today consumers can sell back to the grid. In addition, when you look at optimizing when you use high-usage appliances, instead of doing your drying at 6 PM maybe you want to do it at 1 AM at night, right? So a lot of smart in the house, in the utility grid and so on, that is assumed in making this work. But the point is obvious - the point is GE is bringing in so many different technologies to go back to the polymath concept, right? They are very comfortable with the solar stuff, smart grid stuff, the smart appliances, fuel cells for the home, all those have to come together. So I was seeing, Larry to your question, I was seeing these compound innovations more and more start to evolve.

Larry Dignan

Yeah, so does this imply that a company has to be big to pull this off?

Vinnie Mirchandani

Not necessarily, Larry. I profiled a bunch of mid-caps, if you will. Salesforce.com is one of the case studies in the book. And the reason I profiled them was if you look at what Salesforce.com has done, even they probably don't realize it. To be able to deliver Software-as-a-Service, they had to learn datacenter operations. Very few software companies even today know how to do that, right? They just outsource it to the hosting firm, someone like HP or IBM to do it. So Salesforce.com had to learn about cooling efficiencies and storage economics, and application management, massive - massively skilled application management, right?

If you look at the economies of scale that a NetSuite or a Salesforce.com has in application management, all the offshore economics that we were chasing for the last few years look so fat in comparison, right? So Salesforce.com had to learn a bunch of new sciences that a typical software company traditionally didn't have to. So that's one reason I have them as a polymath.

I have somebody called Cognizant, an outsourcing firm, about $3 billion company, which is defined as a polymath because they are able to bring talent pools from all over the world. For some clients they are servicing from Argentina. Other clients they are servicing from Hungary, still others from Philippines, others from Phoenix. The ability to be able to deliver consistent quality service around the world was one reason why I call them a polymath.

In addition, Larry, I've got some really small firms, 1% and 2% firms that I have profiled in the book in terms of how they are leveraging different technologies. So no, you don't have to be a big company to be a polymath in my definition.

Larry Dignan

Okay. So what happens to the tech vendor in this equation? How do they foster this innovation? How do they - well, I guess there's two sides, right? How do customers get thinking along these lines? And then, I'm not sure the tech vendors really have the answers for this sort of new world.

Vinnie Mirchandani

Well, I do profile three or four tech vendors as case studies in my book. I think the biggest realization that any, whether it's a corporate user or a vendor, needs to come to is, we now have such a broad portfolio of technologies, many of them very, very affordable, many proven at this point. We just have to open our eyes and not just focus on our little silo and say, I'm just a software vendor, or I'm just a sensor vendor, or I'm just a telecom vendor. And start thinking bigger in terms of what are the solutions we are trying to solve - what are the problems we are trying to solve? And go out and find technologies from wherever and however.

I mean the palette is just so wide. The big message from the book is: "Think big, guys." I mean if you look at - Larry, we - you and I both followed the software industry for so long. If you look at how little investment goes into new stuff, right, they constantly tweak version 12, version 14 of a software product. If they were to just stop and say, so much more, why aren't we doing stuff with RFID? Why aren't we doing more stuff with Bluetooth? Why aren't we doing more stuff with sensors? I think - they'd come up with new solutions that we haven't even thought about.

Larry Dignan

Do you think it's a case of not being able to, well, a) get the budget to see ahead? And b) how much of this new thinking is budget versus management skill?

Vinnie Mirchandani

I don't think the budget is an issue at all. If you look at the...

Larry Dignan

Okay.

Vinnie Mirchandani

... corporate user, certainly from a corporate user perspective, the - we spend 4 trillion a year between telecom and technology, okay? And as you and I know, a lot of that is wasted spend, right? Were spending $5,000 a gallon on printer ink, we're spending roughly $10,000 on a call to SAP or Oracle. We're spending $2 a minute calling from overseas on the AT&T mobile network. I mean that is not innovation spend, it's just wasted money that we could chisel down.

The money is there, okay? I mean if you look at health tech, certainly in the U.S., right, as a country we spend three times as much as any other comparable country, okay? So the money is not an issue. If you look at vendors, Wall Street lets them spend 10%, 12%, 15% of their revenues without penalizing them too much.

So I don't think that's the issue.  It's a question of how that gets doled out, and how we just tweak versus thinking bigger. That is an issue, I think.

Jason Hiner

So it's really leadership you're getting at, Vinnie. What do you say to IT leaders when you're telling them how to break out of this old view of getting stuck in the maintenance cycle and not looking at the ways that you're spending money or not optimizing your spend? How do you tell them the recommendations to break out of that cycle?

Vinnie Mirchandani

Well, part of it is little bit of FUD [Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt], right? The people that I profile in my book have been doing it for five, six, seven years. So your competitors are doing it, right? If you're still stuck in the IT silo and maintenance within that IT silo, you're really not spending 4%, 5%, 6% of your revenues compared to what your competitors are doing.

Jason Hiner

Yeah.

Vinnie Mirchandani

So that's one thing. The other thing I'd encourage them to think about is, given the advantage of having run an IT shop for 10, 15, 20, 30 years, the CIO, the IT leader, understands the risks with technology. So you can take some of that learning, into clean tech, into health tech a lot more. One of the risks I do see with companies moving into clean tech and health tech and new technologies is, they often forget - it's tempting for them to embed technology into their own products, right? Cars have a bunch of sensors and software and Nike has embedded sensors and so on. One of the risks is when the average company starts to embed technology it forgets the licensing issues, the IP issues, the Moore's Law that applies to technology and so on. So one of the things that the GE IT group that I interviewed said was they are turning their IT inside out. In fact they are coaching their own business units that are embedding software and so on, on some of these issues, revenue recognition, IP protection, economics of technology. So I think the IT group has an opportunity not just to innovate itself but to start helping its peers in the product areas to learn better about the nuances of technology.

Jason Hiner

So does that result in a more decentralized IT department? Is that what you are talking about where they are more embedded in the groups and maybe have that visionary CIO, CTO at the core of that, sort of guiding the process? What do you think that looks like?

Vinnie Mirchandani

I think that is increasingly going to be common. Certainly, the R&D part of the product development technology will move to the businesses. And then the IT group will be doing future-looking common collaborative kind of projects. I mean that is certainly a model that seems to be evolving.

Larry Dignan

So do they need new tools to collaborate to get this done?

Vinnie Mirchandani

Well, that's another area of innovation, right? I mean, Larry, one of things - I have eight case studies on the polymaths. And I looked at what technologies they are leveraging. So those technologies I put into 11 chapters and I use an acronym called RENAISSANCE to describe the 11 chapters. One of the chapters, the second N in the RENAISSANCE is all about a human network, okay. So it's all about collaboration and communities and crowds and all the new ways of leveraging talent that we are seeing out in the marketplace, okay, so bunch of innovation going on around making teams work better, the collaboration, the telepresence, et cetera, et cetera. But that is certainly one drill-down that I go into in one of the chapters.

Jason Hiner

Okay. What's the most impressive company or leader that you've seen doing this as an example that you talk about in your book or even that isn't in the book?

Vinnie Mirchandani

Jason, what was fascinating was I obviously interviewed these eight companies at length. But I talked to probably another 150 people around the world who are in those 11 chapters, either pushing the ball forward in the analytics area or the next-generation interfaces or sustainability. So I talked to a bunch of innovators in those specific areas. It blew me away how much innovation there is going on in, not just in the U.S., not just in Silicon Valley, but around the world. So when you ask me to say who is the most impressive, it's like you're asking a parent to say who is your favorite child.

Jason Hiner

Well, maybe tell us one that was really impressive that you haven't talked about already, then that might have something interesting that others could learn from in our audience.

Vinnie Mirchandani

So let me give you two. One is a big company. And one is a relatively small you wouldn't expect. One of the things I talk about is innovation from left field. So I do talk about in a way you least expect innovation from - I have several examples. But one of the more impressive things I saw was the BP, British Petroleum, CTO group has a small team. It's only 12 people, focused on innovation. Their job is to make their refineries, their field operations, their big tankers, their drilling exploration units and so on, find ways to use technology to make those operations much more efficient. So 12 people supporting a multi-billion dollar company around the world. Effortlessly, they were talking about, oh, we use sensory networks here. We use predictive analytics to predict a vibration on big tanker. We use 3D visualization technology for these functions. I mean it's just amazing to see how much they were accomplishing with just 12 people. Now they have a very wide ecosystem of innovators - networks of innovators. And obviously, they use their own business units for testing out the concepts with just 12 people. It blew me away...

Jason Hiner

Cool.

Vinnie Mirchandani

... how much leverage this group could get. On the other hand, if you talk about innovation from left field, I was impressed that a small country like Macedonia, it's a land-locked country, pretty poor country; the whole country is a [Wi-Fi] hot spot. So their kids are getting access to the global database, if you will, and learning about Alexander the Great, one of the famous sons from their country on the Internet. I mean who would have thought Macedonia - you don't think of that as an area for innovation, right? But if you look at where they're going and where they have come from, that is a huge step forward. So over and over again, I saw plenty of areas of innovation where you kind of don't expect it.

Jason Hiner

Excellent. Well, Vinnie, thanks for your time today. We really appreciate it and appreciate you sharing your wisdom and some of the learning that you've had in the process of writing your book. So for more on this topic and other tech news and views, you can always go to zdnet.com and techrepublic.com. ZDNet of course is your source for the latest news and perspectives in business technology. And TechRepublic's the source for IT leaders to get tips, best practices and peer to peer conversations. You can also find Larry, Vinnie and I online. Larry, where do people find you?

Larry Dignan

At btl.zdnet.com and ldignan on Twitter.

Jason Hiner

And, Vinnie, how about you? Where do people go to find out more about your book? We'll put a link in the show notes to the book. But where else can people find you online?

Vinnie Mirchandani

Well, there will be a website called thenewpolymath.com. Or you can always email me at vm@dealarchitect.com. Or I'm on Twitter as dealarchitect.

Jason Hiner

Excellent. Thanks again, Vinnie. And you can find my blog, Tech Sanity Check at sanity.techrepublic.com. You can find me on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonhiner. So thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.

Topics: Emerging Tech, CXO

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1 comment
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  • RE: Is polymath the answer to IT innovation? [podcast]

    I am failing to see the point in the whole of this discussion. Not sure if it is because of the choice of questions to Vinnie or because of the content of the book itself.
    Arun (sreearun)