Innovation usually focuses on bringing new features to markets through “innovative” products or services invented by technology researchers and blessed by business managers. “Innovative” usages are rarely planned or expected even though the previous “next big things in the Internet” (Web, P2P, blogs, …) went big because of emergent usage dynamics rather than of “innovative” products or services pushed to markets. Usage innovations has been one big credo at the FING (a French think tank dedicated to Internet technologies) for quite a long time. They now mention this nice France Telecom R&D article that summarizes how usage innovation differs from product innovation and why applied research should focus on usage innovation. Here is my attempt at translating and paraphrasing some of the nicer bits found in this article:
If innovators don’t focus on they innovation efforts on usage first, their inventions then face the following risks :
- Technical risks: offering features that do not address real needs or remain incompatible with other systems, networks, protocols or interactions and are then not used; or those only features that will be used face a risk of rapid obsolescence and over-serving features will slow any update process
- Economic risks: making clients pay for mandatory additional features whereas the price for addressing real needs would be lower; clients will then see a low value for their own use (10 to 20% only of all features are useful to them while 80% remain hidden and latent…)
- Human factors risks: difficulties will appear in the use and the representation of the product and services, users won’t be able to anticiapte work around “wrong uses” of the product and will not accept product limitations; users will rely on some “hot line” to learn how to use product or service, will make frequent calls or ask for refund but expected uses are not fulfilled.
- Social risks: product or service may be massively rejected, retracted from market, distrustful or disinforming campaign may arise, investigations about bad impact on health or environment may be launched; this would lead to delays in the distribution of the product, needs for reorganization to answer arising needs or market pressures or major bad impact for corporate brands
- Combined risks: risk of significant overhead for the user in terms of technology, usage, service adoption, need for skills or knowledge, price to pay for the tool to be really adopted; risk of dividing even more the ones who know and can profit from the offering to those who can’t; reducing the market impact
Those risks are not addressed by the current inventor habits for product innovation because those are specific to the field of expertise of researchers whereas usage risks emerge from the combination of these fields into a single complex offering once it is brought to the market. It is difficult to combine discipline-specific predictions related to usage because they are scattered among siloed scientific disciplines.
- Technology researchers focus on solving tough technical problems and give answers to such questions as “How and why it works”, supported by demonstration of technical capabilities and technical benchmarks. They can predict the level of disruptiveness of this new technology in terms of new capabilities and features offered to users and can anticipate how well this new piece of technology compare to the current state-of-the-art in terms of features and performance.
- Social researchers, supported by interviews and observations, may answer users questions such as “what is it useful to? how could it be useful to me?”. They predict the level of disruptiveness this piece of new technology will bring to user habits, how well (or bad) this technology complies with the current user habits and usage. They advocate the anticipation of emergent usages.
- Human factors researchers perform field trials and in-lab tests. They focus on user questions such as “how does one use it? can I use it or not?”. They anticipate how this invention will conform to the representation users have of similar products or services and can predict their needs for support.
- Economist researchers will answer “how much does it cost to users? how much profit would users expect from it?” and use total cost of owernship analysis and niche market analysis. They can anticipate such users decisions as deciding to wait before getting equipped or as deciding to renew one’s equipment.
It is difficult to anticipate and address risks emerging with usages. It is even more difficult to invent usages. Is it even possible? Maybe with the use of early simulation and rapid prototyping such as this article seems to sugges? I lost myself while reading the rest of this nice France Telecom R&D articles. And I yet have to be convinced that corporations such as France Telecom would be able to innovate through usages.
Cette chronique de Bertrand Lemaire (LMI) au sujet des appels d’offres des marchés publics de l’Etat m’a rappelé combien les administrations centrales gèrent mal leurs décisions d’achat. Les administrations centrales de l’Etat, d’une manière générale, me semblent être des organisations bien malades, souvent bien plus malades que les bureaucraties privées. Leur difficultés à acheter des prestations informatiques n’est qu’un symptôme parmi tant d’autres. Les SSII qui font affaire avec elles sont peut-être à plaindre mais elles y trouvent quand-même leur compte. C’est surtout les fonctionnaires qui y travaillent et les citoyens qu’ils sont sensés servir que j’aurais tendance à plaindre. Pauvres de nous…
+28% en 2005, +34% à +46% prévus en 2006, c’est le nombre d’offres d’emploi pour informaticiens en France. Fin 2005, près d’un tiers des offres de recrutement de cadres concernaient des informaticiens, surtout en SSII. Et la demande est particulièrement forte pour les chefs de projet avec un profil plutôt “business” et les programmeurs et architectes Java ou .Net. Les causes? Départs à la retraite de nos anciens et baisse du nombre de diplômés en informatique. Ca devrait être bon pour mon porte-monnaie, tout ça.
SFR is the #2 telecom operator in France (subsidiary of Vodafone and Vivendi Universal). They announced yesterday that they would allow 50 additional employees every year to spend from 6 to 11 paid days per year working for a non-profit organization. These days are paid and managed as usual working days. SFR limited the authorized non-profits to those working in the fields of childhood protection and people with disabilities. SFR employees have a strong demand for such a program and a jury will have to select the yearly 50 “citizen-employees” based on the quality of their project.
For sure, this must be great news for altruistic SFR employees. But I’d like to make a suggestion to SFR to make this operation even more effective: why aren’t you focusing on your core business and competencies instead of diverting your efforts toward childhood and disabilities topics? I’m quite sure SFR employees could come with substantial socially-savvy innovations in the field of telecommunications if they were challenged to do so. Social entrepreneurship (entrepreneuriat social in French) combines altruistic aspirations with senseful business innovations. In the field of telecommunications, the best example for such activities is probably the Grameen Village Phone (see also here) or, to a lesser extent Alcatel’s Digital Bridge. Many other examples exist in social hightech. Social entrepreneurship projects may be riskier than usual innovation projects corporations sometimes carry. But this citizen-employee kind of operation would be ideal for managing the risks of social entrepreneurship project while contributing to the corporate social responsability of SFR, giving it a nice media coverage and still giving birth to economically viable businesses.
The so-French tradition of tightly containing “charities” away from business sometimes drives me nuts. Take the best of both worlds, please!
Anyway, hurrah for this nice SFR marketing and HR operation! If only my employer did the same thing, I would probably be on the field trying to connect some unconnected families, researching some disruptive knowledge technologies applied to local development (such as social networking software for residential areas), developping semantic web technologies applied to corporate social responsability reports or so.
Grâce aux Google maps notamment, on a vu apparaître sur le Web une floppée de mashups visant à permettre des interactions locales entre personnes, ancrées dans un territoire. De manière balbutiante, PlaceOPedia fait par exemple le lien entre des articles Wikipedia décrivant des lieux et la localisation de ces lieux sur une Google Map. On est encore bien loin d’avoir des outils qui permettent de créer du lien social sur un territoire donné pour lutter contre les phénomènes d’exclusion. D’abord parce que les territoires sont à peine représentés sur le Web, ensuite parce que les logiciels de réseautage social sont bien peu efficace pour réellement créer du lien, enfin parce que le mixage des deux tarde à donner une quelconque forme de résultat utile.
Certains s’amusent à construire leur propre téléphone mobile. En Wifi pour s’affranchir de l’opérateur télécom. Ca peut donner ce qu’on appelle de l’open source hardware.
Les mashups, c’est cette activité très à la mode (“Web 2.0”) qui consiste à combiner (agréger) des services Web existants pour en faire un “mashup” à votre sauce et développer ainsi un nouveau business. Il existe autant de mashups possibles que de combinaisons de services Web.
Problème pour l’opérateur de site Web qui envisage de publier un service Web: est-ce que cela va me rapporter de l’argent ou ne vais-je pas, au contraire, perdre du traffic direct et donc des revenus publicitaires? Matt McAlister s’est penché sur la question.
Jean-Pierre is member of a French NGO dedicated to extreme poverty in France. He works closely with some nomad gypsy families who live in poverty near Paris. He sometimes brings them his laptop, a digital camera, a printer and an Internet connection and made some experiments with Skype and other software. They enjoy getting some news about Romania through online newspapers and websites. The young father of one of these families told Jean-Pierre how cool it would be if computing allowed him to get some recent pictures from his 5 years-old son who stayed in Romania. It has been 2 years since he last saw him. Another person is trying to get in touch with their mother who suffers from some disease in Romania.
When I read that on Jean-Pierre’s blog, I started trying to identify some Romanian volunteer who would visit that remote family with a digital camera, take some pictures and send them back to Jean-Pierre’s laptop via the Internet. I wrote a blog entry for this. I asked a Romanian colleague in the company I was working for at the time. I also sent a couple of emails to some Romanian IT services companies which offer offshore consulting services to French customers. Unsuccessfully.
Some time ago, a French guy in Bucharest contacted me in order to volunteer. Unfortunately, he was not located near the Romanian area where these families are, as Jean-Pierre explained us. So he could not help.
I don’t know much things about these families in Romania. As far as I know, they are in the area called Mehedinti, near the city of Girla Mare. I assume they are gypsies. Another Romanian colleague told me a bit more about this area. It is a very poor rural area with small mountains (up to 1000m high) near the Romanian border with Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro. He told me that the Romanian government had been saying for years that no such extremely poor and excluded gypsies exist in the country (until the European Union required from them that they recognize the importance of their minorities). From what I saw about gypsy families in the Czech Republic, I imagine that they live far from any town or village, without any sort of infrastructure. Maybe the road that leads to their place has no asphalt. Maybe they are in the middle of a forest, in some muddy place (Dilbert’s Elbonia anyone?). Maybe they live in a giant soviet-like sinister building in the forest where broken windows have never been replaced (this is the reason why they might be interested in linux BTW). They probably don’t have electricity nor any phone line. They most probably live on the fringe of society as their French cousins do in some way. I wonder how far such a picture is from reality. I hope I would be wrong.
Anyway, as I joined a new company, I investigated our presence in Romania still in search for some would-be volunteer. Our corporate directory randomly gave me the coordinates of one of our employees in Bucharest. I sent him an email like I would be sending a bottle into the sea. How surprised I am by his answer!
He tells me that he asked all of his colleagues about what we can do. One of them knows someone in this rural area. This local person is the head of a mountaineering club. He tells us that he is very enthusiastic about helping there. At the same time, my employer might be motivated by the idea of connecting some unconnected families in such a rural area and may support such an initiative. Or I am once again too naive. Anyway I am now investigating this opportunity internally. I also have to answer this mountaineer and try to understand a little bit more his motivations and expectations. I have to get sure that he does not think this would bring him any money because this is so far from what I am interested in.