Selective innovation is smart innovation

Nick Carr was interviewed by WSJ recently about his notion that some companies have made a religion out of innovation, and that isn’t a good thing. The WSJ piece isn’t online in a free form, but Nick discusses it a bit in this post.

I’ve been a big fan of the whole Innovator’s Dilemma/Innovator’s Solution camp since I first discovered it in 2004, but I’ve also never bought into it whole hog. I’ve always seen a place, especially in the newspaper business, for sustaining business models. For example, newspapers have tremendous market strengths that can be used profitably in pushing classifieds to the Web and up selling print advertising. That revenue can serve as powerful seed funding for more innovative projects, so why not grab it?

In a recent piece in E&P, former Knight-Ridder Interactive executive Tom Mohr (who shares with me a common Bakersfield lineage) issued some pointed criticism of the newspaper industry about the lack of innovation, the over reliance on the local advantage, and the need for development of a common content platform.

I’m not sure he’s right on all his points. Reading the Carr interview helped me formulate some thoughts about where he’s wrong.

First, as Carr says, breakthrough innovation is not always the ticket to long-term success. Dell has done very well in innovating the consumer experience and fulfillment process, but that hasn’t prevented a recent decline in the company’s fortunes. Apple has always been a leader in product development, but hasn’t always been a market leader. When Dell was at its best, though, it innovated in process and copied Apple in product development. In recent times, Apple has been a monster in product innovation, but its success has also been fueled by what it’s been able to learn from Dell about process.

In both cases, these two tech innovators figured out where they had competitive advantage and then persuade innovation where they already led the pack.

So what are a newspaper’s advantages:

  • Local information
  • Local advertiser relationships
  • The ability to gather and disseminate massive amounts of information on a daily basis

If newspaper companies copy wisely from market leaders in search, social networks, user-generated content and multimedia while concentrating its R&D efforts on information delivery, then there is no reason to believe newspaper journalism on the Web is doomed.

As Carr points out: Being first is not necessarily a competitive advantage. Being a smart second or third can be better.

I’ve heard one or two colleagues brag about how they don’t look to other newspaper industry leaders for ideas. They make a point of dissing various industry confabs (but never turning down a speaking invitation, of course) while claiming that their best ideas come from outside of the industry. I’m not sure that’s an accurate claim, but when I look around the industry, I find a lot of smart people working very hard to solve industry-wide issues. I never miss an opportunity to pay attention to what they have to say. Sure, we should know all we can about what else is going on in cyberspace, but you pretty much have to be a dunce to miss the biggest (and even minor) innovations. So, why can’t all of these smart people come up with good and appropriate facsimiles? Some companies, in fact, are doing it. More need to. There is reason to hope. I’m not sure Mohr’s Switzerland Inc. is our salvation.

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