30 Oct Lessons in innovation: Control Data was the Apple of its day
Minneapolis, Minn. – There’s something extremely cool about having one of the principals of a legendary corporation serve as one’s eyewitness news reporter (especially on the occasion of its 50th anniversary). When the company is Control Data Corp. and the reporter is former CEO Bob Price, it just doesn’t get any better.
“A celebration of the legacy of Control Data” took place two weeks ago at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
That legacy, according to Price, “is truly how `to walk the talk’ of innovation and not just have innovation be a word and the province of the PR department. In Control Data, innovation was the province of everyday people in all functions of the company: administrators, salespeople, engineers, researchers, software developers, and HR folks.”
An investment in Control Data of $10,000 in 1957 would realize a return of $6.3 million by 1968. In the words of founder William C. Norris: “We opened the doors of Control Data in 1957 in the face of what some might have seen as insurmountable odds. We were up against entrenched competitors with vastly superior resources. We succeeded to a remarkable degree.”
This start-up company was so effective that in 1963 the chairman of IBM (against which Control Data had launched an antitrust lawsuit) said he failed to understand why Big Blue had lost its leadership position within the supercomputer space to a company with only 34 employees (“including the janitor”).
Eye for Innovation
By 1971, Control Data grew to become one of the world’s leading computer companies with revenues topping $1 billion. Eventually the company grew to more than $5 billion.
Price’s 2006 book, “The Eye For Innovation: Recognizing Possibilities & Managing the Creative Enterprise,” drew on his 40-plus years at the forefront of the computer industry. It details how business leaders and entrepreneurs can apply the principles of true innovation to every aspect of their organizations.
By the 1970s, when “green” was still only a color, Control Data was anticipating today’s focus on alternative energy sources.
Its world distribution center in St. Paul, Minn. used solar power. It backed an innovative small company – Jacob’s Wind Energy – that created wind farms from Hawaii to the Caribbean Islands including some of the earliest wind farms in California. Control Data partnered with its major electric utility company to find innovative ways to cut power consumption especially at peak periods.
“Control Data was the Apple Computer of its time,” Price said. “Innovation was at the core of Control Data’s DNA.”
The company’s daylong event featured seminars that detailed how Control Data’s supercomputers and management philosophy impacted and still influence the world today. In addition, a rarely seen exhibit of computer artifacts was on display. The public was invited to attend the free event.
“The outpouring of innovation over three decades was much greater than even those of us associated with the company realized,” Price said.
This became evident from the very first discussion panel. The company blazed trails in high-performance computers, computer storage, and other peripheral devices, data networking and computer-based education. A special treat of the event was a video clip made for the occasion by Don Bitzer. He’s the PLATO design guru then at the University of Illinois.
Working in partnership with software and hardware people at Control Data, Bitzer produced such advanced software as groupware, packet-switched communication networks and a flat-screen plasma display for which he received an Emmy.
Perhaps more striking was a discussion of the innovation and management practices. These practices helped Control Data people be among the most productive in the industry.
There were pioneering innovations in such things as a “stay-well” program, telecommunications for the physically handicapped and an employee advisory office that provides confidential counseling to employees wanting to leave the company to start their own businesses.
The dedication of the company to nurture small business was perhaps best symbolized by a painting of a soaring eagle done by Mario Fernandez. He is a Cuban refugee who – with Control Data’s help – started his own engineering company but soon discovered that his talents as an artist exceeded those of his being an engineer.
The original eagle painting (which is titled “The Entrepreneur”) was presented to the company some years ago and was the feature clip of the final video of the celebration event. The last panel was compelling because it discussed Control Data’s legacy of an innovative role in industry and society.
The panelists included David Gardner (a journalist and author), George Latimer (a former mayor of St. Paul), Chuck Denny (a prominent Twin Cities businessman) and Dean Chris Puto of the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas. The panel was chaired by Al Eisele (former assistant to vice president Walter Mondale).
An “innovation in products and services” panel of experts was moderated by Charles T. Casale (an early member of the legendary Seymour Cray design team).
The panel explored innovations that produced high-performance computers, peripherals, and data communication networks. It also discussed the innovations that made these devices available on a service basis to individuals who otherwise had no access to such capability.
“Innovation in management practices” reviewed the kind of innovation rooted in employees who believe “what I think and do matters” and “I can make a difference.” This panel, which was moderated by James R. Morris, focused on how corporate policy and management practices produce a utopia not just in product innovation but also in employee health and productivity.
“Nurturing innovation through spin-offs and small business formation” detailed the core of Control Data’s business belief: that entrepreneurs are the keystone of economic vitality. This belief was given lasting form via the William C. Norris Institute that is dedicated to that purpose.
• Ogan Gurel: Fostering innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum
• Tom Koulopoulos: Innovative teams point the way to discovery
• Ogan Gurel: Innovation vs. invention: Knowing the difference makes a difference
• Tom Still: Changes to U.S. patent law must nurture our culture of innovation
• Ogan Gurel: Who is minding the Innovation Gap?
This article previously appeared in MidwestBusiness.com, and was reprinted with its permission.
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