Originally published in InformationWeek on December 19th
I continue to be amazed by the rapid pace of innovation in virtually every technology market. Every time you blink, it seems there's another startup taking on the old guard.
Conventional wisdom in technology is that you need to abandon the existing order when faced with a new bright and shiny product. However, as someone who has worked with both startups and global leaders, I know it cannot be an either/or approach. Scrapping years or decades of investment in infrastructure is foolish, and the innovators who are winning are building their breakthrough tools on top of proven technologies. Two great examples are products I use and love: Flipboard and Nest Thermostat.
By nature, Nest and Flipboard improve upon existing products instead of trying to replace them. For example, instead of creating its own content from scratch, Flipboard compiles content that already exists into a format based on users' preferences. By the same token, the Nest Thermostat makes no attempt to re-engineer an entire heating/cooling system. Instead, it offers a smarter thermostat that integrates with the heating/cooling infrastructure that's already in place.
With the enterprise technology space becoming more competitive by the day, you may be asking how we can apply this model to enterprise technology. Let's dig a bit deeper into the Flipboard and Nest strategies to find out.
Flipboard reimagines existing content
Flipboard recognized that while there is an almost unlimited quantity of content available online, consumers spend a huge amount of time skimming through dozens of sites and hundreds of pages to get to the content that interests them.
So, Flipboard developed breakthrough mobile apps, a polished user interface, and a curated reader-driven content strategy to pull in readers. This formula allowed the company to continue innovating while adding hundreds of thousands of users along the way.
One issue the company needed to address was content producers' desire to maintain a distinct brand and form relationships with readers. That's why Flipboard pays such close attention to format and look and feel with features like customizable layouts and user interfaces that adapt to your device. That way, they can keep both the content producers and the readers happy.
Nest makes the system smarter
Nest had the breakthrough insight that, while the actual delivery mechanisms for residential heating and air conditioning systems were working well, human errors and inefficiencies of traditional thermostats were leading to wasted energy and rising heating and cooling costs.
Nest came up with an elegant and simple solution that worked and has continued to release new versions of the thermostat and its software, improving its simplicity and user friendliness. Nest has also continued to develop products beyond its initial market beachhead, including a smart smoke/carbon monoxide detector, which is a logical extension that naturally appeals to those who own or are interested in the Nest Thermostat.
It's clear that Nest has made it a priority to know its customer base: the homeowner. Homeowners are making the purchase decision and need to be convinced of the product's value. So, Nest offers rebates, proof of energy and money savings, and the option to easily control the product through your mobile device.
Enterprise technology: How does it fit the mold?
As Flipboard and Nest show, new technologies don't need to reinvent the wheel. This is even more important in the enterprise, where companies have invested millions of dollars in their IT systems.
Take Splunk, for example. IT groups need analytics on all the critical systems they manage to better understand how they are performing. Rather than require IT admins to provide logs in a standard format, Splunk designed its system to import files in any format directly from the systems IT manages, and developed a dashboard of insights and alerts. It fundamentally changed IT operations without completely starting from scratch.
On the other hand, most cloud file storage solutions have taken a different approach. Every company has a system for managing its files and information, but new technologies such as cloud, mobile, and social tools have changed the way users share and access data. In response to these major technology trends, popular new tools for file sync and sharing, like Box and Dropbox, are creating new information silos that are not integrated with existing file systems. While these services are easy to use, you must drag the files you want to share into a proprietary cloud one by one.
There is clearly value in these new solutions, but a better approach is the Nest and Flipboard method: Incorporate new capabilities such as user-friendly mobile apps, hybrid cloud storage options, and newsfeed-like streams on file changes, but integrate them with existing corporate file servers, security standards, and compliance regulations.
Continuous innovation has been key for both Flipboard and Nest, whether it's in well designed mobile apps or a constant cycle of hardware and software updates. Established industries and processes like heating and cooling systems, the publishing industry, and enterprise IT exist for a reason: They are effective solutions to real problems. If new ideas don't fit within the existing frameworks, they can cause more disruption than they are worth. Instead, be like Nest, Flipboard, and Splunk: Disrupt, but don't break.