About 15 miles south of San Jose, down a country lane, and hidden behind one of the scenic rolling hills of "Steinbeck country" is IBM's Silicon Valley research and development labs.
It used to be called Santa Teresa Labs, opened in 1977 with about 3,000 square feet, housing about 1300 researchers, mostly working on software projects.
It is miles from Silicon Valley and out in the middle of nowhere, but this is one of IBM's top research labs. Clearly, IBM renamed the labs because it wanted it to be associated closely with Silicon Valley, and with innovation - the life blood of Silicon Valley.
I was there recently for an event that showcased some of IBM's customers (EBay, Yahoo) and IBM's technologies. I heard a lot about innovation. Innovation was by far the most commonly used term by the presenters. I also heard a lot about IBM's "Innovation Jam."
This is an event that takes place once a year and was started in 2001, bringing together tens of thousands of IBM people, and customers, in a three-day brainstorming festival.
I had two questions: The first was "what is innovation?"
I was told that it means bringing people together to create new ways of thinking and of doing things. I was told that Innovation Jam created a whole pipeline of projects and that some of those became significant businesses, etc.
But what I really heard between the lines, was that IBM was using collaborative technologies to create business ideas and that it was the collaborative technologies of blogs and wikis and online forums that were the real innovation technologies.
My second question was: "Why does innovation only happen once per year at IBM?"
I was told that the Innovation Jam happened once per year but that the threads started there would continue throughout the year and that it took time to weed out the great ideas. Once the best ideas were discovered and tagged they would be placed into IBM's "Innovation Factory" where people would figure out how to monetise them for IBM's clients.
It was an interesting afternoon and it made me realize how much thirst there is for "innovation" among companies, and how IBM is hoping to monetise that thirst by getting companies to outsource their innovation needs to Big Blue.
I guess if IBM can say "innovation" enough times, and append "innovation" to as many things as possible, it has a good chance to make lots of money. After all, it runs the largest computer R&D labs in the world, and those researchers need to get paid. If IBM can provide "innovation" to others, then that is a good thing for all.
But the term innovation is getting so very broadly defined that I fear it is becoming over used and doesn't have much meaning.
One of the IBM executives told me that increasingly, a lot of large companies have been appointing executives with "innovation" in their titles. Such as a VP of innovation, or a chief innovation officer, and it is not clear what those jobs mean.
A little while ago I got into an online debate with Geoffrey Moore, Silicon Valley's top IT and business consultant, on this subject of innovation. He had put together a list of different types of innovation and had said that innovation does not have to be disruptive.
I respectfully disagreed, I said innovation had to be disruptive, anything less was just an incremental improvement on how things are done. Without disruptive innovation most of the companies in SIlicon Valley would not exist, would never get funding. Who would fund a company that had a technology that just improved on an existing process?
Innovation dramatically improves a process or creates something that is capable of wresting away a huge chunk of market, valued in the $1bn plus range. Anything less is not innovation and is not disruptive.
But I shouldn't throw too many stones because I do live in a glass house. I publish "Silicon Valley Watcher - Reporting on the business and culture of innovation."
But maybe I should change my tagline to this: "Silicon Valley Watcher -Reporting on the business and culture of disruption." That way I can continue throwing stones...
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