Our new innovation group’s 23-year history

Opinion

The genesis of the modern internet set the stage for the fourth industrial revolution and a new pantheon of technology giants. But with established corporations looking to the same old faces to help them respond to change, the search for disruption quickly led to frustration. Enter a new breed of innovation specialists…

There was a time when IT was simply a business enabler. Depending on the sector, competitive advantage came from the ability to introduce new brands and distribute them as widely as possible; to open new stores or branches; or to design a better car and build it more reliably and cost effectively – but never from information technology. IT was an overhead, historically used by the bean counters to count beans quicker. Or to produce better reports so that managers could make more informed decisions about the core business.

The IT people were seen as the geeks in the basement, there to be shouted at when a PC wouldn’t work or a printer got jammed. And because senior management didn’t really understand IT, when large companies like IBM came along, offering to run it cheaper and take all that capital expenditure off balance sheet, everyone cheered. The CFO could talk to the nice person in the navy suit, white shirt and dark tie, and no one else needed to worry.

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run” – Roy Amara

Navigating the trough of disillusionment

Then in April 1994, everything changed: the world’s first commercial web browser was launched. The change came slowly at first. We had to get through the hubris of the dotcom era, when fortunes were lost just as quickly as they were gained. Then we had to navigate the trough of disillusionment that followed, when senior managers of large companies sat back and congratulated themselves for seeing off those pesky kids from Silicon Valley. By 2002, it was business as usual.

Roy Amara’s famous quote “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run” couldn’t have been more true. Established corporations were happy to embrace the first part of the quote but spectacularly failed to understand the second part.

By 2007, Apple had launched the iPhone, Facebook had launched their first mobile product, Netflix was streaming, and Kodak was celebrating a profitable year for the last time (pre-bankruptcy). We had well and truly climbed out of the trough and into the thick of the fourth industrial revolution, characterized by a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.

Finally, established companies began to notice, slowly at first but the momentum was increasingly hard to ignore. By 2017, seven of the top ten companies in the world by market capitalization were technology companies; Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, Alibaba Group, Tencent and Facebook. The takeover was complete. Established companies realised they were playing catch up again. Suddenly innovation departments sprang up in pretty much every major corporation, and they were backed up by big budgets.

Racing to keep up, but going nowhere

The problem was, the approach to technology within these large organisations hadn’t really changed because, in many cases, it couldn’t. Decades of constant cost cutting, and almost ubiquitous outsourcing to major IT services firms, had stripped most corporations of their internal technology capability. Yet a strong understanding of technology was the very thing they needed if they were to deliver on their innovation agenda.

At first, they turned to their usual suppliers because they didn’t know where else to go. Lack of understanding meant corporates initially bought into the innovation and disruption marketing messages of the big IT services companies. But frustration soon set in. No matter how much organisations spent with the big suppliers, profound organisational change never really happened.

This was no surprise. After all, the companies pitching their capabilities around innovation had spectacularly failed to innovate or disrupt themselves. They were still selling their old model of flooding the client with as many people as possible – preferably junior associates, so they could learn on the job. Unlike the senior partners who sold the engagements, who knew what they were talking about, the junior associates frankly didn’t, and they got in the way. Still, if you were a major IT services company, employing hundreds of thousands of people, what else were you supposed to do?

Introducing a new breed of innovation specialists

Corporates began to realise that their traditional IT providers weren’t the right partners to deliver on their innovation agendas. What was required were crack teams of specialists, able to respond creatively to business challenges. Partners who were not encumbered by sclerotic corporate cultures, who could be pragmatic, get the job done, and who were happy to transfer knowledge on the way out, so clients were left with an organisation that was fit for purpose.

But in the mass of specialist providers, how were you supposed to pick the right ones? How could you make sure they had the longevity to see such important projects through? What was required was someone to carefully curate a group of specialists that were at the top of their game and hell-bent on collaborating with each other to give clients the best possible outcomes.

In response to this need, The Panoply was created. Assembled for innovation.