Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Importance of Computer Science
Computer Science is becoming fundamental to Science

Anybody who has more than a passing interest in computers will hardly be surprised to know that their importance to how we manage business and society is growing.

However, a group of internationally respected scientists has now produced a report that goes further than just saying computers are becoming more important. Indeed, much further. The report - Towards 2020 Science - suggests that computer science is on the way to becoming as fundamental to science as mathematics already is.

The group, led by Professor Stephen Emmott of Microsoft Research, Cambridge, UK, focused primarily in the natural sciences rather than engineering or physical sciences. However, their conclusions have startling implications for science in general. They posit that, driven by advances in computer science and computing, scientific knowledge is set to grow more rapidly than ever. Since most natural systems can be modeled as information processing systems, computing advances such as Multicore CPUs, Peer-to-Peer and Service-oriented architectures, and Data Analysis tools will have dramatically accelerating effects on the rate at which science develops.

Databases, for instance, have virtually become indispensable to the scientific method - to gather data, manage it, draw inferences, and verify conclusions. Advances in computers have made statistical techniques and numerical methods much more powerful.

And their findings are not being taken lightly. The Economist and Nature, always unflappable, have gone into dignified raptures over the earth-shaking possibilities being thrown up by this report.

One thought that surfaced irresistibly while reading the report and the learned commentarites: perhaps many of the conclusions are valid for the world of business as well. Just substitute the word 'business' for 'science' above and you can scarcely disagree.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Innovation Moves Centerstage
Companies are moving to become more innovative

There can be scarcely any doubt what the hottest mantra on the corporate landscape is, and will be for the next few years: innovation. Creating new products, services, business models faster - and more smartly - has rapidly climbed to the top of the corporate agenda.

Why is this happening now? Innovation has of course always been important in business. However, the world of business has arguably never been as competitive, and customers have never been as demanding as they are now. This means that any company that keeps serving up what is seen as "yesterday's" product is doomed. Simple cost efficiencies have become hygiene - what differentiates is the ability to create things that meet new needs, faster and better than the opposition can.

Also, the role of technology, even in the staidest of industries, is not to be discounted. Many activities we perform - banking, travel reservations, communicating with loved ones - have changed more in the last 10 years than they had in the previous 100. All these changes have primarily been driven by technology. The effect of this on the underlying industries - banking, travel, posts and telegraphs, telephone services - has been profound, and the companies that have survived have been the ones that innovated hard and fast.

As noted in my earlier post, innovation is today probably the most arcane of corporate skills - the one that is least understood, least structured and least algorithmic. Of course, it will not remain so for ever - with all the attention innovation is getting, this skill is bound to get more structured, and companies will figure out how to make innovation better managed, more predictable, measurable, repetitive, etc.

Already there are some new paradigms of innovation emerging, which promise to make it vastly more effective. Open innovation, which seeks to dissolve the impregnable walls of the corporate research laboratory that has traditionally been the stronghold of innovation, is gaining traction. In this model, innovations move both ways across corporate boundaries - the company imports ideas from outside, and also is more free in giving out ideas developed within. Procter & Gamble's Huston and Hakkab expound on their marvelously successful Connect and Develop paradigm, which leverages online networks of experts from all over the world, in last month's Harvard Business Review.

Many corporate shibboleths are being dispensed with. As Business Week says, companies are increasingly internalizing the truism that "If you don't fail occasionally, you're not pushing hard enough". This may just become the defining mantra of the new-age company.

Companies are also becoming more agile - the same Business Week article refers to a company that runs a restaurant chain, which has no corporate headquarters at all - the management simply meets in one of their restaurants! Fortune's Innovation Forum talks of how Boeing is speeding up design by using innovative collaboration techniques.

However, all this refers to a small minority of exceptionally enlightened (or exceptionally burnt) companies, and the bulk of companies are still mired in ways of doing things that have changed little in decades.

So, innovation will move over one day to cede the corporate throne to some new magnificent obsession, but that day is not likely to dawn anytime soon.