Archive for the ‘Innovation management’ Category

Cart before horse

November 4, 2018

Every year our Virtual Organisation students do a workshop on approaches to innovation with David Barry, who draws on the concept of horseless carriage thinking.  He uses as a metaphor for innovation the idea that motor vehicles only really developed once it became apparent that they could do things that horses and carriages couldn’t.  And it has been pointed out that one factor is that you no longer needed to put the horse in front of the cart.

This made me think of a particular episode in the motor industry that does provide a lesson in innovation, and it’s a story of what went wrong when a British car manufacturer put the cart before the horse.

In the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in cars made in continental Europe, it was common for small cars at least to have the horse behind the cart – that is to put the engine at the rear of the car.  The original Volkswagen Beetle was probably the most notable and must surely be the one that’s most widely recognised today.  But Renault, Fiat, Skoda, and long-forgotten continental European manufacturers such as Simca and NSU, made small rear-engined cars for many years.  The catalyst for change came in the late 1950s, when the British Motor Corporation’s famously eccentric engineer Alec Issigonis devised a very small car with the engine at the front, but turned 90° compared to what had been normal practice.  This meant that the long side of the engine ran across the car, thus saving space, and the result was the first Mini.  There are exceptions and the Smart car is a 21st century take on the idea of a small rear-engined car, and there are significant engineering differences between the original Mini and a modern car, but most small and medium-sized cars made today follow the engine layout pioneered by Issigonis sixty years ago.

Another British manufacturer, Rootes, also started developing a small car in the late 1950s, and the resultant product arrived on the market in 1963 as the Hillman Imp.  This was the first British car with the engine at the back, and while it remained in production for a respectable period of 13 years, it sold in limited numbers and didn’t catch the public’s imagination, especially compared to the success of the Mini.  Placing the cart before the horse didn’t seem to have been good for the British motor industry.

In the 1960s automotive companies were encouraged by the British government to build new factories in areas where other heavy engineering industries were declining.  Ford and Vauxhall both expanded on Merseyside, and both factories are still going (the former Ford plant at Halewood now part of Jaguar Land Rover, who somehow pulled off the trick of selling ever-increasing numbers of luxury cars in the years following the 2008 financial crisis).  Rootes built the Hillman Imp in a factory in Linwood in central Scotland, which closed, and prompted a wave of urban deprivation (which is another story) in around 1980.

Rootes, and their well-respected designer Tim Fry, took some trouble to learn from other manufacturers, and the Imp was an ingenious design which, despite using an engine layout which was soon to fall out of favour, had some technically advanced features.  Unfortunately they lacked the financial resources to develop the Imp, and the Linwood plant was beset by fraught industrial relations and poor build quality.  So it is tempting to regard the Hillman Imp as a good idea which was poorly implemented.

But the real lesson from the Hillman Imp in terms of innovation is this: when its development started, and the transverse engine at the front was a wild idea sketched out by Alec Issigonis on a paper serviette, the choice to put the engine at the back was a perfectly rational one.  With hindsight, it was a poor decision.  But when planning for the future you can never tell whether it would be wise to put the cart before the horse.


An innovation network in action

January 22, 2016

News that  GAVI (the global vaccine alliance) is supporting development of an Ebola vaccine is noteworthy because GAVI consitutes an example of an innovation network.  It brings together a number of different players in the field of pharmaceuticals and public health and its partnership model is at the core of its activities, recognising that in this field there are many different organisations which make different contributions.

Retro no more

January 22, 2016

A few years ago I blogged about Friends Reunited (one of a fair number of online services past and present that I’ve personally never joined) as a ‘retro social network‘. Now it’s being closed entirely, an example of how something which was once popular can disappear completely, and an opportunity to wonder what sort of value first ITV, and then D C Thomson, gained from the network while they owned it.  The founders are still planning new social networks, but they are looking to enter a much more crowded market so I wonder how successful they will be.

Flat-pack ready meals

March 19, 2015

Last week with my MSc economics students we spent some time brainstorming different business models for delivering groceries ordered online.  Internet supermarkets such as Ocado, or Tesco’s online presence, adopt one model which combines the range of products that you’d find in a mainstream supermarket, with home delivery.  Asda’s enterprise at London Underground stations is a neat variation of this, and from the supermarket’s viewpoint is a low-cost bolt-on to their existing model because if you can load up a van with groceries for home delivery, you can also load up a van to be serve commuters passing through the station car park.

But there are also models which vary the approach to supplying the food.  The fresh vegetable suppliers, Abel and Cole and Riverford, are examples of this.  So is Hubbub, which works on sourcing food from small retailers.  Interestingly, they compare themselves to Ocado, which is undoubtedly valid in terms of their target market and the importance of service.  However their approach to logistics is at the opposite end of the scale to Ocado, who seek to gain economies of scale by serving a very large number of customers from a single distribution centre, and indeed by working with Morrisons in parallel to its own brand operations in conjunction with Waitrose.

One other model which is worth a look is exemplified by a company called Gousto.  Like Ocado it was set up by former bankers and it has now attracted some investment from Unilever.  The idea is that they deliver a box of ingredients, together with the recipe, so that customer can cook their own meal but can follow the recipe precisely.  I guess that part of the inspiration for this comes from flat-pack furniture, where you can buy a box containing all the components of your furniture but you still need to put it together.  Think of Gousto’s boxes as a flat-pack ready meal

Microsoft’s latest acquisition

September 15, 2014

Having bought Nokia’s mobile phone business,Microsoft have made another acquisition in Scandinavia.  The logic behind them taking over the developers of Minecraft seems clear enough, given the popularity of this particular virtual world, but the statement by Minecraft’s creator makes very interesting reading.

E-government taking shape

June 14, 2013

The Guardian’s video on e-government has a slight touch of the infomercial about it, but still it does cover some useful issues about the development process, and if you can mediate your viewing of it through the rather uncritical presentation, then it is worth reviewing as a case study of e-government.  Significantly, when I viewed it on the Guardian website, I was served with a banner advert for some perfumed inspired by James Bond, perhaps the UK government’s most famous fictional employee.

Return of the dumb-phone

June 14, 2013

Browsing the BBC website for stories around mobile technology, it was good to see one which covers both the continuing use of more traditional mobile phones (feature phones to use the currently favoured term) and the role of technology in the developing world.  When I first read about the bus-tracking service, I wondered whether part of the concept was to ‘crowdsource’ the determination of where each bus was, by asking users to report on the position of buses.  But it turns out that GPS receivers are cheap enough, and presumably GPS coverage is good enough in Indian cities, that a simple GPS box in the bus can be used to provide data.


June 14, 2013

Apple’s latest update to its operation system has brought the word skeuomorphism into the public eye.  Some of the choices of image used in the interfaces for smartphones do look quaint, most notably the microphone used to denote when a phone is operating as a recording device, which appears more like something from the 1930s than anything more recent.  My Android phone has a simple voice recorder behind an icon of a tape-recorder with giant open reels, which is perhaps more of an artefact of the 1970s that some of Android’s developers might remember.

The move away from this approach towards a simpler, blockier, set of icons caught my eye because, in Apple’s implementation, it does seem to copy some of the look and feel of Windows phone.  Which, given that over the years, and going right back to the inception of Windows 95, I’ve heard grumbles that Windows tends to copy ideas which had been used in earlier products from Apple, is a significant reversal or roles

Blackberry and the future

April 30, 2013

This piece about what BlackBerry’s CEO might or might not have said is interesting, both from a disruptive innovation viewpoint (my take is that BlackBerry is still searching around for a new product, and a business model, that will be as distinctive as its traditional offerings, and that despite heavy advertising its most recent products are likely to be perceived as ‘just another touch-screen phone) and for the discussion below the line, which ranges from reflections on the authenticity of the quote, to thoughts about the future of the sector (including a comparison with Digital Equipment in the 1970s, who didn’t think that personal computers would continue to be important)

Dell and the future

April 30, 2013

For some time I’ve been wondering what the future might hold for Dell computers, given that their business has always been based around a world where the personal computer is a key repository for the sort of documents and data that are now increasingly being held in the cloud.  This was brought into focus earlier this year by Dell’s transition from being a public to a private company.  This piece from the Economist is an interesting reflection on Dell’s future, not least for the anecdote with which it opens.