IBM: The 'next big thing' no longer exists

The head of IBM's innovation division says there won't be any more disruptive technologies. Instead, people will focus on the value that arises from creation.
Written by Jeanne Lim, Contributor
SINGAPORE--The era of inventions that the world had come to know ended with the passing of the 20th century, says a prominent thought leader from IBM.
Nicholas Donofrio, Big Blue's executive vice president of innovation and technology, made the provocative declaration Tuesday in an interview with ZDNet Asia. He was in Singapore for the Infocomm International Advisory Panel's first gathering, organized by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore.

"If you're looking for the next big thing, stop looking."
-- Nicholas Donofrio, IBM

Donofrio said: "The fact is that innovation was a little different in the 20th century [than it is today]. It's [now] not easy to come up with greater and different things."

"If you're looking for the next big thing, stop looking. There's no such thing as the next big thing," he added.

However, that is not to say that the 21st century does not require any form of invention, creation and discovery. Donofrio explained that these days, people are looking for value that arises from a creation, and not just looking at technology for its sake.

When it comes to innovation, there is a need to think collaboratively and in a multifaceted manner, as this determines who wins and who loses, he said.

He added that innovation today is more about services, process, business model or even cultural innovation, and not just product innovation.

"People all around the world are telling us the same thing," said Donofrio. "IBM did a survey of 750 CIOs and all of them listed innovation as a top priority. This is what I spend my time on, what I worry about."

To foster a culture of innovation in the company, IBM set up a ThinkPlace, or an online community for its employees, nine months ago. At ThinkPlace, participants are encouraged to put up ideas, which are evaluated and then rewarded or redirected accordingly.

"In the late 1980s, IBM got into trouble and did away with the suggestions,” he said, referring to the corporate turmoil that IBM underwent in the late 1980s to the early 1990s. The company reported a US$4.97 billion loss in 1992 which, at that time, was the largest single-year corporate loss in the history of the United States. After Lou Gerstner was named CEO in 1993, he helped turn the company around and lifted IBM out of its disarray.

Donofrio said: ”But we'll always be a technology-based company. The ThinkPlace fills a hole in getting employees to buy in (suggest ideas), and creates an environment that will allow them to be innovators.”

According to Donofrio, IBMers have contributed close to 5,000 ideas to date, and about 100 of them are currently being evaluated. These ideas cover products, processes, and services, he revealed.

Meanwhile, IBM seeks to cultivate the spirit of innovation outside of the company as well, he pointed out.

There is even a group at IBM "looking hard at collaborating with other people" on future technology, said Donofrio. A key example would be the company's alliance with partners such as Sony and Toshiba, on the Cell chip.

In addition, the company has organized the GIO, or Global Innovation Outlook, which is a series of discussions that took place in 2004 and 2005 between IBMers and thought leaders, and participants from the academia and industry around the world.

For the GIO 2.0 that took place last year, more than 180 ecosystem partners from around the world participated in 15 day-long sessions held in China, India, Brazil, Switzerland and the United States, discussing the future of the enterprise, transportation, and the environment.

And in April last year, IBM launched a Genographic Project together with the National Geographic Society. The project is a five-year research partnership using sophisticated laboratory and computer analysis of human DNA contributed by hundreds of thousands of people, including indigenous peoples and members of the general public, to map how the Earth was populated.

Just this week, IBM announced that it will give qualified partners access to its renowned research organization.

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