18 June 2014

Tomayto? Tomahto?

What began as a minor, though significant, theme of these endeavors, that Kiddie Koders' infatuation with xml/NoSql/etc. is a sign of both emotional immaturity and pure dumbness, seems to impel me to type away more than most other concerns. This sort of infatuation, which derives from these folks who insist they've invented something Really Neat and New, morphed into The Great Recession. The operative word has been Innovation (always, of course, capitalized).

There have been more than a few missives in these endeavors intended to eviscerate such nonsense. Well. Today I came across this Forbes piece by Mark Rogowsky. I recommend you read it, but it's not the subject of these musings. Rather, a piece from The New Yorker which he cites early on is our jumping off point. Why The New Yorker didn't send me the assignment is lost to history.

Lepore starts her narrative in the general vicinity of my beginnings: she in Cambridge, while I was in Government Center in Boston. She in the 1980s, I the 1970s. Not that there was a huge difference. Well, mainframe for me and PC for her. So, she must know her chops? Mostly.

OK. She starts, and perhaps not fully knowingly ends, with Harvard Business School. We meet the main protagonist, Clayton M. Christensen, author.
Christensen was interested in why companies fail. In his 1997 book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," he argued that, very often, it isn't because their executives made bad decisions but because they made good decisions, the same kind of good decisions that had made those companies successful for decades. (The "innovator's dilemma" is that "doing the right thing is the wrong thing.")

I confess to not knowing, or at least not remembering, Christensen, although the notion, and the book titles, are familiar. It all sounded like snake oil when I first met them. Lepore's prose doesn't change that. No surprise in that.

The thesis:
Manufacturers of mainframe computers made good decisions about making and selling mainframe computers and devising important refinements to them in their R. & D. departments--"sustaining innovations," Christensen called them--but, busy pleasing their mainframe customers, one tinker at a time, they missed what an entirely untapped customer wanted, personal computers, the market for which was created by what Christensen called "disruptive innovation": the selling of a cheaper, poorer-quality product that initially reaches less profitable customers but eventually takes over and devours an entire industry.

I'll interject right here the falsehood being perpetrated: Apple, by today's lights, is the innovating disrupter. Notice any disconnect? Here it is: Apple takes a cheap BOM, uses very clever marketing, and sells at preposterous margin to the top 20% or so of the market. So, then, what characterizes innovation? Is it Good Enough But Cheap? Or is it Cheap But Chic? Clearly Christensen has his head up his sphincter and spies the world through his umbilicus. Prose cleaned up for the Kiddies.

Lepore spends her text picking apart the Christensen examples which support his thesis. In particular, she takes him to task for
The handpicked case study, which is Christensen's method, is a notoriously weak foundation on which to build a theory.

One such, which Lepore spends much text on, is the hard drive industry. Both of them are fundamentally wrong. What neither gets to is the science and engineering of hard drives. It was new science and engineering that made possible multiple terabytes in a 3.5 inch form factor with predictable performance and longevity. For nearly two decades, IBM has been shipping mainframes with 3.5 inch drives. They're not just cheaper, but they're better. IBM sold off its HDD segment to Hitachi in 2002, and Western Digital now owns it. It's worth mentioning that IBM, while not the discoverer of GMR was first to ship it. I guess startups aren't the only place that figures stuff out.

But, of course, the hand picked case study is the signature method of The B-School. And most of those studies are written by B-Schoolers. What's the punchline to the fable of the frog and scorpion, "It's my nature." Why she wouldn't know that is unsaid.

Also left unsaid, by my reading, is the explicit accusation that "disruptive innovation" is just word salad. Small salad, being only two words, but bereft of any intrinsic meaning.

She does make passing reference to business change from the 19th century through the 20th, but makes no explicit mention of what it was that drove change (call it, innovation) in manufacturing over that period of time. And the answer is: scientific discovery. By 1800, Franklin had been dead for ten years, and Newton hadn't been dead until after Franklin was born. Thermodynamics were codified about 1850, give or take. Petroleum by Drake is 1859. Steel making, open hearth and Bessemer, same time. The last natural element of the periodic table, 1939 (depending on how one measures). The point, as asserted before, is that up to Hiroshima (or thereabouts), humans were figuring out the real world and innovating through new discovery. Today, not so much. We know most of what there is to know about the real world. We don't yet know what dark matter and dark energy really are, and there's not much likelihood we'd be able to exploit them the way we have petroleum and fission.

Today, innovation is mostly old wine in new bottles. With fancy labels, aka marketing. All that financial innovation which gave us the Great Recession? Just a repeat of bucket shops from the early 1900s.

In the end, is there any there, there? Is "disruptive innovation" redundant? Isn't any true innovation disruptive by definition? Could we just be many, many steps along Zeno's dichotomy paradox, making ever more inconsequential modifications to all our widgets? Given the paucity of new science applicable to normal commerce, is the reality of "disruptive innovation" just another way to say corruption of the rules of engagement? Certainly, financial innovation as executed in the last couple of decades qualifies. Apple's version is just slick marketing of cheap goods sold dear. That's hardly innovation; Swiss watches have been that for a couple of hundred years. Google and such are, in the end, just advert pushing platforms. Adverts are hardly innovation; likely the second oldest profession.

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