Are We Too Comfortable to Innovate?

    Recently, Jouni Forsman, who researches telecommunications for Gartner, posted this observation: “I believe that most of future innovations in communications may well come from emerging markets.”

   He goes on to list his reasons, which include that innovations in communication technology are more desperately needed in the developing world, where existing technologies are extremely expensive. That’s tough to dispute when here in the U.S. suburban kids take wireless for granted (even my second-grader says I’m no fun because there aren’t any games on my mobile phone).

    What should give CIOs pause, however, is this observation of Forsman’s: there are more people living in emerging markets than in developed ones. The engineers in those countries are going to be thinking hard about what those consumers want. Not only that, but it costs their employers less to fund their imaginings. I had a conversation not long ago with Roy Dunbar, the CIO at MasterCard (a global organization in more ways than one), in which he made the point succintly: “There’s no monopoly on intellectual capital in North America.” We were discussing why IT organizations need to be more agile in order to compete with new products and services offered internationally.

    Sure, it’s not news that if you’re working in a company of any size, you're competing globally. A lot of people in the R&D community worry about whether this country is at risk of losing its edge in innovation to low-cost labor markets. But what if the root of our innovation problem is not that we’re outsourcing our intellectual property along with application development? Suppose emerging markets emerge as centers of technology innovation because developed economies can’t generate ideas that are big enough? Suppose we’re too comfortable with our tools and our gadgets and our processes to do anything more than tweak the status quo?

    What do you think? Are we too happy with ourselves to maintain our edge? Do you think it matters? What do we do about it?

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