Move with the swarm

Innovation is fun. Innovation is important. But is innovation the solution to every company’s problems?

Ever since I first read Clayton Christensen, I’ve wondered: Where do newspaper companies draw the line between sustaining growth and disruption?

It is tempting to think that newspapers are being sliced by a thousand cuts and its either innovate for die, either disrupt yourself or die. The risk of putting all your chips in the innovation pot, however, is that you may be making the wrong bet. There may be things about your core that adapt very well to new business environment and the best thing you can do for your company is shift or drift with the market — innovate around the core, rather than jettison your 150-year-old business in favor of the flavor of the month. Innovation and disruption is far more risky — most innovations, most new ideas, fail.

These thoughts come after reading Business Pundit’s post on a potential Google weakness: innovating too much, too fast and not concentrating enough on the core business, which is search.

Google is trying to organize and search different things. I think they would be better off finding new ways to search the same thing.** I’ve taken to using different search engines for different needs. I use Yahoo, Wikipedia, and at least as much as I use Google. When I think of Google, I think of something that will give me the most popular web pages about a topic, which isn’t usually what I want since I have esoteric interests. Why can’t Google give me different ways to search based on the way I plan to use the information I am looking for? Instead of ranking a page higher because lots of other pages link to it, how about giving me the pages lots of other people like me read, or the pages experts in the field of my search topic read, or pages in a hierarchical format the way I might make an outline? I think Google is too focused on innovating into totally new areas and not focused enough on improving search and presenting the results in better formats. It still sucks. It’s too easy to game the system. Calendars and payment systems and online spreadsheets and all that are just a distraction.

The key problem for many newspaper companies isn’t that they aren’t innovating fast enough. It’s that they aren’t adopting their core fast enough to the new environment. Surf around newspaper sites and look at how many have drab real estate sites, or predictable auto sites or classifieds that haven’t moved beyond the basic listing stage.

Those newspaper companies that have developed, or are developing R&D departments are doing the right thing. I would love an R&D job, myself. But there also needs to be more attention paid to the digital core.

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