While leafing through a catalog from PC Connection, I was struck by the extreme irony of seeing an iPod in the catalog listed as “iPod + HP” with a big “HP Invent” logo adjacent. My immediate reaction was “invent? Invent what?” but the more I think about the current HP strategy, the more I move further towards a personal redefinition of invention and innovation.
First off, fair disclosure, I worked for about four years at Hewlett-Packard’s Palo Alto R&D Laboratory as a research scientist back in the late 1980’s. With a few other positions at HP (including technical director of the multi-million-dollar HP University Grants Program, a fascinating venue marred by poor management support) (but that’s another story!) I was involved with the company for about five years plus another year or two of consulting afterwards.
After I left, I had the opportunity to work closely with Walter Hewlett (the son of Bill Hewlett, the “H” in “HP”) at the Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities, and remained in loose contact with Walter during the Fiorina debacle. At the time I was not a supporter of Carly’s becoming CEO and after five years of watching her basically fumble HP’s lead, pay far too much for the minimally valuable Compaq, lose the strong leadership position in printers, etc., I am still not a fan of her direction.
However. However, when I was at HP we used to spend a lot of time joking about “NIH”, the Not Invented Here syndrome that caused us Lab geeks to reinvent darn near everything, from compilers and kernel debuggers to network stacks and protocol suites. It was, in retrospect, a phenomenal waste of time and while the NIHish “next bench” philosophy originally espoused by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard served the company well for many years, it finally ended up a tired, obsolete and irrelevant strategy for a company that had grown far too big to be insular in its product development strategies.
And so in that sense, the real invention of HP’s “invent” with the Apple iPod is that HP didn’t create their own, but they licensed and repacked the existing market leader to gain a foothold in the exploding market for mp3 and audio players.
It’s a dramatic strategic shift and whether it was directly proposed by Fiorina or something that slipped through the cracks of a less centralized management structure (as Carly promised when she took the helm of this blue chip company), it’s really a winner and a harbinger of good management direction at HP.
My personal redefinition of innovation is being reshaped by watching the industry in the last few years. One inevitable downside of capitalism is the profligate waste produced by too much competition. How many different companies need to make the exact same personal computer? How many need to buy third-party memory chips and rebrand them as their own?
So innovation isn’t what you think it is. It isn’t about inventing something new. Sometimes, it just about rethinking what’s already around and sometimes it’s as simple as putting a number of existing technologies together in unique and interesting ways.