Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Let the Little Guys Drive (Disruptive Innovation)

Article at Wired.com

If a domestic auto industry is to survive, it will have to incorporate and encourage breakthroughs from outsiders like Transonic. Automakers will need to transition from a vertical, proprietary, hierarchical model to an open, modular, collaborative one, becoming central nodes in an entrepreneurial ecosystem. In other words, the industry will need to undergo much the same wrenching transformation that the US computer business did some three decades ago, when the minicomputer gave way to the personal computer. Whereas minicomputers were restricted to using mainly software and hardware from their makers, PCs used interchangeable elements that could be designed, manufactured, and installed by third parties. Opening the gates to outsiders unleashed a flood of innovation that gave rise to firms like Microsoft, Dell, and Oracle. It destroyed many of the old computer giants—but guaranteed a generation of American leadership in a critical sector of the world economy. It is late in the day, but the same could still happen in the car industry; it just has to harness our national entrepreneurial spirit to develop the next wave of auto breakthroughs.

By seeking to match the likes of Toyota, Detroit has been trying to come from behind in a game where its adversaries set the rules. To Klepper, the Carnegie Mellon economist, the Big Three today resemble the American television-receiver industry in the 1970s and 1980s, pioneered by US corporations that, after decades of domination, were suddenly confronted by foreign innovation. Companies like RCA and Zenith were slow to incorporate new technologies until it was too late; all exited or sold out to foreign firms. "Every time American companies catch up to the competition," Klepper says, "the competition already has moved on and instituted new things. In that situation, it's extremely difficult to get ahead."

The only escape from this conundrum is to pursue what Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has called disruptive innovation—the kind of change that alters the trajectory of an industry. As Christensen argued in his 1997 book, The Innovator's Dilemma, successful companies in mature industries rarely embrace disruptive innovation because, by definition, it threatens their business models. Loath to revamp factories at high cost to make products that will compete with their own goods, companies drag their feet; perversely, financial markets often reward them for their shortsightedness. Good as they are, the European and Japanese automakers are established companies. At this point, they are as unlikely to pursue disruptive innovation as Detroit has been. That gives the US auto industry an opening. To take that opportunity, it will have to behave differently—it will have to step far outside the walls of the Rouge.

I very strongly believe in the idea of disruptive innovation. Other innovations that I consider disruptive are "netbooks" and casual gaming (i.e. PopCap Games). Getting sucked into a never-ending cycle of competition between established companies encourages incremental improvements, is reactionary, and ultimately drags down all players involved. Much better to break free and create a new paradigm/product.

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