A tale of three cities: perspectives on innovation from New York, San Francisco and Sydney

Posted in: Business Insights

Recently, Pythian hosted a number of Velocity of Innovation (Velocity) events. I moderated two of these: one last June in New York, and one in November in San Francisco. Another event in Sydney, Australia was moderated by Tom McCann, senior customer experience analyst with Forrester.

Our Velocity events have given us unique insights into what IT professionals in various regions see as their top priorities or concerns. And although we always framed our discussions with similar questions, it was interesting to see the different directions they took in each location — especially when it came to the topic of innovation.

So what makes a particular region fertile ground for innovation? And can you measure it?

The Global Innovation Index (GII) ranks countries based on a multitude of indicators of innovation. The United States ranks number 2 on the GII, behind Switzerland, while Australia is number 17, out of 141 countries. According to the GII website, the index aims to capture the multi-dimensional facets of innovation and provide the tools to assist in tailoring policies to promote long-term output growth, improved productivity and job growth.

The ideas discussed in the US and Australian locations seemed to align with the GII results, with US panelists expressing more positive attitudes and concrete ideas on how companies can improve agility and become more innovative. And while being at the forefront of technology in the Asia-Pacific region, the Australian panelists and audience members described more cautious approaches to achieving innovation.

Sydney: Cautiously moving forward

Early in the Sydney panel discussion, Chris Mendez, executive consultant big data and analytics from Industrie IT, sparked a lively discussion about innovation by asserting that innovation is lacking in that region.

“I actually don’t think there’s enough innovation in Australia, in particular. There’s a lot of talk about it, people are doing a lot of experiments, and there are some companies who’ve set up business purely based on tool sets that use data to innovate. But there are a few things that seem to be working against innovation, and I think one of those things is that it doesn’t stand on its own,” Mendez said.

According to Francisco Alvarez, vice president, APAC at Pythian, the risks associated with innovation might be holding companies back in Australia. “The main problem for most companies is that innovation equals risk,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez also commented on what it takes to make innovation work. “If you take a step back and look at the companies that are doing well in the market, you can see that there is one factor that differentiates them: they were not afraid to try to innovate. And because of that innovation they are getting their share of the market and gaining ground. Just look at the financial market. CBA was considered crazy a few years ago for all the investment they were making in technology, social media, apps and so on. They got ahead. And now everybody is trying to do the same,” he said.

Mendez thinks that innovation needs to start from the top. “I think there’s also a very big misunderstanding at board levels about innovation because boards are there to actually stop you changing your business. The fundamental tenant is: ‘We’ve got a great business model here, it’s running well, we’ve got to make sure that any change to it doesn’t damage that.’ There’s a natural caution at board levels and it’s totally understandable,” he said.

While cautious, the Sydney panelists expressed that they thought there is hope for more innovation in the future. They expressed a need to proceed slowly, watching what works for innovation leaders.

“The key is to have a balance,” Alvarez said.

New York: Early adopters

If you were to put our New York panelists on Geoffrey Moore’s https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Moore Technology Adoption Lifecycle, you might classify them as early adopters, rather than true innovators. Not surprising, since New York’s competitive industries such as banking and publishing rely on innovative technologies, but they don’t create them.

According to New York panelist, Forrester Analyst Gene Leganza, what makes an enterprise agile is the ability to sense what’s going on in the marketplace and to quickly respond to it. But, he said that innovation comes at a cost. “The flip side of agility is innovation. An interesting aspect of innovation is getting really hot talent into your environment. Getting the right talent and doing smart things and being leading edge are challenges. You have to figure out what level to drop in on, where you are in the industry. You need to determine if you are a startup or a state organization that needs to be a fast follower,” Leganza said.

Otto Toth, CTO at Huffington Post warned that innovating quickly is not always in the best interest of the business, or it may not be the way to do it properly. He asserted that quick innovation can actually work against the business, and that instead of making your business faster, being very agile can slow everything down.

“Too many decision-makers just slow down the process. It’s better to have a few people or a core team who make the decisions and come up with new features,” he added.

Leganza went on to describe what it takes at various levels of the organization. He said that there’s a notion at the engineer level that agility means bureaucracy won’t get in their way. Then there’s agility at the enterprise level, which is about reducing risk and understanding how soon change can be in production.

“The higher up you go, the more people are going to be receptive to what improves the whole portfolio rather than one project. This is where architects come in. They have been hands-on, but have the credibility and knowledge to guide the organization more strategically,” Leganza said.

San Francisco: The innovators

In San Francisco the narratives on innovation were quite different. Although cities don’t have their own GII ranking, you might assume that the West Coast IT leaders are the innovators. And judging by the discussion at the San Francisco event, this assumption seemed to be true.

Cory Isaacson, CTO at RMS was one of our San Francisco panelists. His company runs catastrophe models for some of the world’s largest insurance companies, like scenarios that will tell what a disaster like an earthquake or hurricane might cost them. Isaacson has been working on bringing big data and scalable systems together to create a new cloud-based platform.

“At my company some of the things that we’re trying to do are, honestly, more advanced than most other things I’ve ever seen in my career. But when you’re doing innovation, it is risky. There’s no way around it. There is a lot to evaluate: from different algorithms to the risk models and the catastrophe models,” said Isaacson.

Sean Rich, director of IT at Mozilla added to the San Francisco discussion by talking about some of the concrete innovations his company is working on. They’re taking a partnership approach to enable agility.

“Innovation is doing something new. In an effort toward achieving agility, one of the things that we’re doing is enabling the agility of our business partners, by changing our own operating model. Instead of traditional IT where we run all the services and infrastructure necessary to drive the business, we’re taking more of an enabler or partnership approach,” Rich said.

“We’re now doing things like encouraging shadow IT, encouraging the use of SaaS applications and helping them really do that better through different service offerings like vendor management or change management of user adoption for certain platforms and data integration” he added.

“Overall, we’re looking at ourselves differently, and asking what new capabilities we need to develop, and what processes, tools and skills we need to enable agility for our marketing group or our product lines, as an example,” Rich said.

Aaron Lee, the Chief Data Officer at Pythian, runs a team that specializes in helping clients harness technology to deliver real outcomes. Usually they involve things like big data, DevOps, cloud, advanced analytics — he’s involved in some of the most leading edge initiatives for Pythian customers. He takes a practical approach to innovation with clients, and said that companies could improve innovation by looking at the root of the motivation for it.

“They need to ask: Why are we going down this path, trying to innovate something and what is the value of that thing we’re trying to innovate?

“If the shared goals around innovation opportunities aren’t defined in a way that actually lead to success over time, then the business is just like any other organism: it starts to get more risk averse. Then it becomes harder and harder to execute any kind of change agenda. Planning in a way that is likely to have a good long-term outcome, even at the outset of any sort of initiative, is one key success criteria that we put in place to help ourselves and our customers get to a good place,” Lee said.

Isaacson added that companies like Google have been known to allow an engineer to take a day a week or a day every two weeks to just look at things. “I think though, the challenge is you have to get your organization up to the point where this is an economically viable thing to do. Once we get more ahead of the curve, I think we could do that kind of thing,” he said.

Interested in being a part of a discussion like these? VELOCITY OF INNOVATION is a series of thought-leadership events for senior IT management hosted by Pythian. Pythian invites leading IT innovators to participate in discussions about today’s disruptive technologies: big data, cloud, advanced analytics, DevOps, and more. These events are by invitation only.

If you are interested in attending an upcoming Velocity of Innovation event in a city near you, please contact [email protected] To view our schedule of upcoming events visit our Velocity of Innovation page.

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About the Author

Lynda Partner is a self-professed data addict and experiences the power of data every day as Pythian’s Vice President of Analytics-as-a-Service. The author of Pythian’s Love Your Data mantra, Lynda understands very well how data can transform companies into competitive winners and she was the driving force in adding an analytics practice to Pythian’s database focus. Lynda works with companies around the world and across industries to turn data into insights, predictions and products, and is the co-author of Designing Cloud Platforms.

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