Friday, November 14, 2014

unCon 2014 Session: Innovation in Boring Industries

Post by Adam Zand, principal at Almost Ubiquitous


This session was led by Ken Pickering, senior director of engineering at Enservio.

We first defined boring. It can be an “unsexy” or utilitarian industry that is underserved by the tech market. For example, insurance is slow to adopt. Technical solutions are slow to buy. The financial industry 20 years ago was harder to innovate. Banking, in general, is slow - still often done on mainframes. Recruitment was pretty standard, but now there is recruitment software. Security used to be boring - Threats made it exciting.

There is an opportunity and excitement to working in these industries. If there are fewer companies doing interesting things, it is easier to stand out and be a leader and have your innovations be adopted by industry.

How do you bring innovation to a company that already has revenue stream?
Extra growth is appreciated if the market is saturated. The challenge with boring industries is that people in them are risk averse. Newness means risk so need to find the champions. Advent of Internet-based companies can be a kick in the pants in markets like insurance. You see funny commercials for branding purposes - these companies understand that younger audiences need to be introduced to the offerings in interesting ways.

What other industries are ripe for this innovation?
We want to serve underserved areas. Boring industries can change quickly. Facebook was a status and photo app. Marketing ecosystem grew up around it. Now, there’s facial recognition opportunities.

All industries see a technology come in that makes changes. For example, PowerPoint was big within education, but is now common. Other industries built tools to support it. Practice of teaching became more interesting. Now, we have classes online anywhere, anytime.
Industry is changed by a technology that may not have been intended for it.

Incremental vs. disruption.
Most big business deals with incremental but it is very significant. There is great value in the volume. It may not be sexy for VC, but this is the foundation of our economy.

The session looked at how do you innovate -- balance incremental and disruptive. Helps to have a group that will support the disruptive ideas, sponsor, champion, and move forward if it makes sense.

A participant from Constant Contact shared that email marketing was looked at as spam, but an opportunity was convincing people who wanted to communicate in useful, welcomed ways. Needed to develop customer relationship and connections. Educate and shift the dialog. Technology pushed it along. At Constant Contact, some customers might be caught in the tradition of a three column newsletter that doesn’t work on mobile. Need to explain the changes and give them samples.

A participant from Trip Advisor shared: Hotels are not tech giants or often connected to the ecosystem. Lots don’t connect to online booking. Friction exists with potential clients. At TripAdvisor, they try to ballpark what people could get from an innovation or new approach. They share what competitors are doing. Some hotels will say our budget is done - they aleady bought an ad in a trade or business publication, but can’t show what the benefits were though.


Motivation for innovation often comes from:
  • Fear from outside
  • Demands of consumers

We discussed innovation as an in-house, incentivized program. A participant who once worked at  Warner Brothers shared there was an incentive program around DC Comics. They had a effort where anyone could pitch an idea. If your idea wins you get a huge TV. 75 people were competing to improve a process. Internal competition gets people excited. Can look at all the programs.

At Microsoft, you have a set amount of time to do whatever you want. Not part of your daily work. Lots of problems gets solved at those times.

This supports incentives with internal competition. One company shared that there is a pitch to VPs once a quarter. Facetime with VPs is important to many employees, however you might miss out on the introverts. Another person shared, this would spice up an innovation team that tends to meet monthly and can get stale.

Someone from Mitre shared that innovation is part of the defined research budget. Anyone can submit a proposal. There is a six month project that can be measured and continued if necessary. Eventually, needs to show successes. Homegrown innovation gets people excited. More buy in.

Are there people in your companies looking out for innovations, trends?
Need to ask: Is there a technology out there that will change our industry. Where is market going? What do customers want?

This discussion showed innovation is alive and well in seemingly “boring” industries. 

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