02 Jun New book from former CDC CEO walks readers through innovation
MINNEAPOLIS – I recently interviewed Robert M. Price about his book “The Eye For Innovation: Recognizing Possibilities and Managing the Creative Enterprise”. This column includes his comments about business, strategy, innovation and “the `C’ word”.
“At its most basic level,” he writes, “business strategy is about people.”
Not surprisingly, Price’s people orientation is evident as he led Control Data Corp. (CDC) from a hardware-only firm to a service company focused on HR management, which is part of its legacy today as Ceridian. The outgrowth of employee management resourcing, confidential counseling and HR functions is an evolution that he lived and experienced.
While its basis is the history of CDC, the book is about how one can use very simple ideas to foment change with strategy development as the key to innovation.
“The strategy process is about fashioning a journey,” Price said. “Building a strategic space involves markets, products and processes. Every time you make a strategic step, you affect all three even if one is the primary focus.”
Price forwards two simple ideas: first, of all the changes that occur, the strategic manager’s best friend is technological change. He adds: “It gives you a new way to do something: know-how equals innovation, [which is] a way to speed up processes and provide meaningful strategy.” For the record, Price does not equate the word “technology” with science, computers or anything other than the simple definition of “getting things to work better”.
Secondly, Price characterizes every strategic decision as a three-way entity. For example, the fundamental decision to make, buy or collaborate on a given product.
“We didn’t use that word – the `C’ word (or “collaborate”) – for some time because there was a World War II taint,” Price muses, who is rife with greatest-generation enthusiasm, humor and metaphors. He reminds us that the “C” word was used to describe complicity with enemy forces such as the Vichy government of France during World War II.
Interestingly, he describes the breaking of the Japanese code by Allied forces as a “competitive advantage”. This made me laugh. I pointed out: “Those little [atom] bombs certainly represented a distinct `competitive advantage’ as well.” This is a perfect example of a strategic decision involving the sharing of risk and reward with a number of other entities.
How Innovative Do People Want to Be?
“I think people do want to be innovative,” he said. “If you think about it as problem solving, we look at how something is done and say `there’s got to be a better way’. We’ve assigned such mysticism to innovation and blockbuster events where most takes place on a much more mundane scale. I think people are stymied. If they can’t be the next Google, they don’t try.”
When CDC was at its heyday as a supercomputer developer, IBM and Univac were its prime competitors. Price added: “Though we were leaders in supercomputing, we lost that leadership in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Seymour Cray came over from Univac, left, rested for six months and then founded Cray Research in Chippewa Falls, Wis.”
To this day, the name Cray is synonymous with high-end, scientific number crunching.
PLATO was part of CDC’s transformation into a service company. Education, health and human services applications grew alongside straight information-processing services.
“Our data centers were originally used by engineers doing Fortran work,” Price said. “We acquired IBM’s service bureau and broadened our scope in 1973.” This continued momentum begun in the 1960s when we acquired CIER (the Committee for Industrial-Economic Research) as well as the American Research Bureau, which became ARB and then ARBitron.”
What made CDC so different and so creative? Was it simply a fluke combination of born innovators who were impossible to duplicate? Price argues that innovators are made – not born – and the type of innovation that made CDC so successful can be instilled in companies large and small and in other kinds of organizations as well.
“Companies can teach and inspire their employees to recognize needs and to work with passion to fill them, to solve problems with creativity and to better serve customers and communities at the same time,” Price suggests. He argues that the creation of an innovative company demands a belief system that embraces these seven principles:
- Innovators are made. They’re not born.
- Strategy is a journey of sequential steps toward an objective. Each step involves innovation in some combination of process, product and targeted market.
- Strategy must co-evolve with technological change and the changing nature of the world it addresses.
- Technology is the strategic manager’s best friend.
- Collaboration – especially technological collaboration – is a powerful strategic tool.
- Crisis is inevitable. While crisis can result in chaos, innovative leaders can use crises to galvanize people for positive change.
- Public-private partnerships present important but frequently overlooked strategic possibilities.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC, accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.