When New Ideas Aren’t Innovation

I recently toured Fort McHenry in Baltimore, MD. You might recall that the fort was part of an historic battle during the War of 1812 that resulted in Francis Scott Key, who witnessed the battle, composing the Star Spangled Banner, which became our national anthem in 1931. My expectation was an afternoon of history, photography, and then good Baltimore seafood. What I didn’t expect was to see a microcosm of technology innovation that sparked a lot of thought.

As I walked up from the visitor center to the actual fort I saw that the staff, in period uniform, were preparing to fire a period-correct muzzle-loading cannon (they did, and it was loud – see the photo above). This was a small caliber “three pounder” field gun, manufactured originally by casting a solid iron or bronze cannon barrel followed by boring out the barrel to the correct size and then mounting the gun on a wooden two-wheeled gun carriage. There were also larger cannons present of similar design that were representative of the era, and had been used as shore gun batteries for the defense of the fort and Baltimore during the September 1814 British bombardment. This was all very interesting, and after a nice chat with the gun crew I proceeded into the fort itself.

The actual cannons mounted in the fort were quite different, and much more sophisticated in design (compare the photo below to the one above). Innovation class was in session! A quick look, and thanks to the foundries’ casting the year of manufacture on the barrels, showed about a twenty year range of manufacture beginning around 1860, making these cannons at least 45 years newer than what the fort staff had demonstrated. These cannons—called Rodman guns— had very sophisticated iron gun carriages for aiming the guns, and the newer ones had hydraulic cylinders and rubber bumpers for controlling recoil. Very interesting! I later found out that a newer casting process had been used in their manufacture that resulted in a much stronger gun barrel, with less boring required to yield a finished gun barrel. Much innovation here! The sophisticated gun carriages and manufacturing process resulted in enhanced “customer” value, specifically 1) faster to aim a large gun than with older design gun carriages and 2) a more reliable gun due to the stronger barrel. Enhanced customer value from new ideas = innovation.

Afterward I read up on the topic and found out that the Rodman guns, which were still muzzle loading, were later replaced with breech loading guns, which themselves went through several rounds of innovative enhancements. Eventually these guns were replaced by missiles, with the whole concept of seacoast defense, and remaining facilities, finally being phased out in the 1970’s (Fort McHenry’s gun batteries themselves date from the 1800’s, and were never modernized beyond the Rodman guns.).

So why the title? I’ve been wrestling with an innovation question for a while that this story highlights. Compare two environments, one which has had continuous modernization occurring over some period of time and another that stopped modernizing at some intermediate point. Now assume we want to catch up the out-of-date environment to include some of the latest innovations. Is catching up the out-of-date environment an example of innovation, and from whose perspective?

As a thought problem, let’s imagine that we’re in the 1930’s in the middle of a wave of innovation that resulted in significant innovative upgrades to our seacoast defense artillery. Poor Fort McHenry (for sound tactical reasons) had been ignored for about 60 years while other seacoast defense installations had been continuously upgraded. But, what if suddenly Fort McHenry decided to leapfrog 60 years of cannon evolution and upgrade to state-of-the-art? Is this innovation? (Don’t answer yet.)

I see this claim all the time in the Information Technology (IT) world. Have you ever seen a data center that was quite a bit out of date (a “data center museum”) and in need of modernization? I see frequent claims in the IT world that “we’re innovating by modernizing our infrastructure.” When I dig into this I find out that the vast majority of enhancements are upgrades of legacy hardware and software to modern components (or the cloud) that may represent new and different technologies. But is this innovation?

Let’s work through a few IT world thought problems. Company A has kept up with technology and is now deploying software-defined networking (SDN) technologies on their 10 Gigabit (Gb) Ethernet local area network. Clearly, they are introducing new capabilities that result in added customer value, to include enhanced security and manageability. Enhanced customer value? Likely. But it this innovation?

Now let’s consider Company B. Poor Company B has lived through some hard times, and is still in the world of 1 Gb Ethernet. Most of their networking equipment is out-of-support and beginning to fail—they have to do something. Company B has been watching Company A all along (their CIOs have drinks together) and decides to emulate Company A by leapfrogging a generation or two of technology and upgrading to 10GB Ethernet with SDN. Enhanced customer value? Definitely. But is this innovation?

Here’s another example. Company A has a state-of-the-art compute infrastructure based on all the latest and greatest virtualization and compute technologies, etc., and has also moved some of their applications into the cloud. Poor Company B is still on the mainframe, and desperately needs to get off it. Company B elects to again emulate Company A, and leapfrog to the latest and greatest platforms and the cloud. Is this innovation?

Let’s test these two scenarios. Enhanced customer value? Check. New idea? Hmm. From whose perspective? Is Company B innovative in modernizing their environment? Is even Company A, considering that these scenarios use commercial off the shelf vendor products? Or, is it just the technologies and products at the cutting edge that are innovative? My vote is for the technologies and products being innovative, and not the companies, in these scenarios. Just like with the Rodman guns I described above, the innovation was in making a stronger larger cannon with a carriage that could be more rapidly moved, and not with where the guns were eventually installed.

So does this mean companies aren’t innovative? Of course not! For example, if these innovative technologies had enabled Company A and B to develop new business models or offer new services that provided customer value, then that’s innovation. But simple modernization isn’t innovation, IMHO.

What do you think?

If you’ve never been to Fort McHenry I highly recommend you put it on your bucket list.

(Top image shows a three pounder cannon circa 1814 in action.  Both photos in the article are Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved.)

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