The New Technology Elite - Author Interview

Exclusive: An interview with the author of the new book: The New Technology Elite. Brian Sommer fires off a number of questions about Vinnie's book, innovation and where is ERP in all this.
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

Vinnie Mirchandani has a new book out "The New Technology Elite". It's a followup to his previous opus "The New Polymath".  Because I contributed a page or two in each book, I didn't think it appropriate for me to write a review of the book. So, instead, I shot a few questions at Vinnie so that you, the reader, can get Vinnie's insights directly.

Vinnie's new tome


Q: So Vinnie, you and I go way back. We've been colleagues and competitors for ages but most of this has been around the ERP space. Your latest book, The New Technology Elite, is decidedly un-ERP. Of the hundreds of examples of innovation in it, only a handful point to this space. Why is that?

Brian, one of the mega-trends in the book is how for technology buyers/users the big opportunity is to embed technology into their products and services. When I started the book research, I figured 8 to 10 industries like medical devices, autos and outlier companies like Nike with sensors in shoes would be my focus. In the end, the book profiles over 75 industries with "smart" products or services. Smart showers from Moen, Smart Hotel room at The Plaza, dramatically tech-enabled aviation experience at Virgin America etc etc. So for these companies, technology is moving from process to product and the book looks at product design excellence, technology supply chains, the role of physical touch and test drives etc.

ERP continues to be important, but is still about process optimization, not product enhancement, so got a bit less play in the book. However, I do profile Elite implementations like Flextronics' global Workday project and Groupon's rapid multi-country NetSuite financials project.

Q: Amazon figures largely in this book. Why are you so enamored with them?

The other mega-trend in book is how technology vendors are increasingly best practice leaders in many areas. In contrast to technology buyers I described in the previous question, for vendors, technology focus is shifting from product to process excellence. So Apple Retail operations are far profitable and have better customer satisfaction metrics than those of much older and wiser retailers. Google's sustainability initiative and investments are top notch etc.

Amazon as a company is impressive on many process fronts - in its AWS data centers, its logistics and innovations like Prime Shipping, the science behind its its customer analytics. I included CEO Jeff Bezos' 2010 Annual Letter to his shareholders in its entirety because it is an amazing example of technology jargon and directions market watchers will increasingly get to hear from companies they track. Amazon definitely qualifies as one the Technology Elite. But in terms of page count, Apple, Google and others do better than Amazon in the book.

Q: You profiled dozens of innovative firms in your book. What organizations did you want to interview but couldn't? Why?

There are hundreds of cameos of innovative products in the book. Many had come to my attention from my New Florence blog where I post 300-400 innovations a year. I would have loved to interview many of those product teams about design decisions, packaging nuances, next release planning etc. Of course, the book would have been 3X the length, and I would still be writing it! Seriously, this is what Florence must have felt like 6 centuries ago during the European Renaissance. So much innovation going on! Exciting times.

Q: Where does curiosity fit in when it comes to innovation?

I am shamelessly curious when I look for posts on my innovation blog. Example: at our local Chinese takeout I noticed a printer which printed the customer receipt in English and for the cooks, the order in Chinese.  The owner noticing my interest asked me to come back when the crowds had thinned out and gave me a nice tour of the specialized software, monitor etc. Inspiration can come from customer ideas, nature, other industries - so many sources, so to me keeping your antennae open is critical for innovation.

Q: Can innovation be mandated? Practically, how does a firm become innovative? Is it a matter of intelligence, will, people, engineering savvy.... What is the secret sauce?

Brian, for some reason, most definitions of innovation tend to be product centric. You can often have more dramatic impact with business model innovation, channel innovation, sourcing innovation. Everyone credits Apple with innovative products, but as my book shows they have also brought business model innovation to music, books and mobile service. They innovated retail operations when everyone was saying brick and mortar was dying. They completely outsourced manufacturing when most continued with at least some company owned plants to manage supplier risk.

In the book, I highlight 12 attributes of the technology elite including design elegance, speed, social savvy etc. So, to me the secret sauce is a combination of those attributes.

The other myopic point I see is around using R&D spend as a proxy for innovation. To me a far better metric is what proportion of your revenues come from new products introduced in the last 3 years. That is a customer validated data point you are doing something right, not some internal mandate, as you call it, for innovation.

Q: What one thing do you want people to take away when they read your latest book?

Just one thing from a 400 page book? Heheh.

Brian, when you and I started our careers in technology in the 80s, I remember there was a palpable excitement about IT providing strategic advantage. In the last 2 decades IT has mostly been control and compliance focused. Now it has a chance to become product, revenue and growth focused as so many case studies in the book show.

We can start to dream of strategic advantage again. How exciting is that?

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