by Thomas Wailgum

Renaissance Men Wanted: Big Problems Need Big Innovators

Jun 14, 2010
Business IT Alignment CIO Cloud Computing

CIOs should look to the ancient Greek polymaths -- also known as Renaissance men or jacks of all trades -- for inspiration, writes Vinnie Mirchandani in his intriguing, new book. Too bad so few of these big problem-solvers run today's software companies, he says.

Think innovation inside today’s corporation is lacking, and that no one is tackling complex global problems, such as climate change, renewable energy, health care and financial catastrophe?

New Polymath book
The New Polymath

The answer to that is a resounding “no,” according to The New Polymath: Profiles in Compound-Technology Innovations (Wiley, 2010). There are, in fact, dozens of companies thinking on a grand scale, as described in the New Polymath, an uplifting read for curmudgeons who believe that nothing truly innovative is taking place.

The book is the debut effort of Vinnie Mirchandani, founder of software-buying consultancy Deal Architect and a former Gartner tech industry analyst and outsourcing executive with PwC. He’s also catalogued corporate innovation efforts during the past six years on his New Florence. New Renaissance blog.

As he explains in an interview with Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum, “new polymath” companies are creating works of innovation that weave together specialist skillsets into a tapestry of products that aim to solve the world’s most pressing economic, health and climate problems. For those commoners who are not as enlightened you and I, what is a polymath?

Vinnie Mirchandani: It’s a Greek term, and it translates to “Renaissance” person, like: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, somebody who was good at many, many things. Da Vinci was an artist, sculptor, architect, city planner—there were 15 or 20 disciplines that just naturally came to him.

But my book in not about historical polymaths. It’s about a new type of enterprise that is learning to blend our incredibly wide palette of technologies: one that is taking a bunch of information techs, clean techs, health techs, and biotech and nanotech components to come up with a new set of solutions that we couldn’t create five years ago. And they’re not just doing it to show off to the world; they’re doing it because they are solving some big problems we face. Isn’t it just a fancy way of saying “jack of all trades,” or is it more than that?

Mirchandani: It is, and it isn’t. If you’re just a jack of all trades and not a specialist, it shows. Look at automobile manufacturers now: Some of their cars are so sophisticated they have 100 million lines of code and hundreds of sensors in them. In effect, an automobile manufacturer has become a technology vendor.

You can imagine that if they were just an ordinary software developer, compared to a Microsoft or SAP, we’d have all kinds of problems. They have to be very specialized to be able to match so many different technologies. How does one become a polymath? History seems to tell us that if people refer to you by just one name—Michelangelo, Leonardo, Plato, Aristotle—that will probably help your cause.

Mirchandani: It starts with really having some grand challenges that you define for yourself. You have to think much bigger than what your contemporaries and what your industry peers are doing. And that’s a big challenge for companies today. They are just tweaking—Wall Street tells them not to spend more than a single digit on R&D; so there’s a “new and improved” mindset, like a small molecule change in toothpaste.

The new polymaths featured in the book are setting ambitious goals for themselves that don’t come from the industry. Those may come from a government or the United Nations that say: We have a severe water issue or a severe health-care deployment issue. Mind you, these companies are not doing this just for charitable purposes; they see a business opportunity to solve some really big problems. Are there any of these new polymaths living among us today?

Mirchandani: You have true geniuses in the tech industry, like Bill Joy: The guy has had so much impact on software, from the Sun SPARC and his Unix work over the years. He’s called the “Edison of the Internet” because he made such a significant impact on IT.

And now he has moved on and become one of the top people at Kleiner Perkins [Caufield & Byers] and helped them define the broad, clean-tech portfolio. Now they’re into carbon sequestering, solar film technology, electric vehicles. To be able to make that transition, you need a superb understanding of a whole bunch of sciences. Polymaths and polymath companies could very easily become one of those arrogant “know it alls” who people just love to hate and might turn customers off, no?

Mirchandani: In this world we are so specialized that, in fact, the polymath is a rarity. Will they be perceived as different or arrogant? Absolutely, because they are a rarity. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage them.

I have a quote in the book where Isaiah Berlin says that there are foxes and hedgehogs: Foxes know many things, and the hedgehogs know one big thing. “The foxes used to roam free across the hills,” he said. “Today, the hedgehogs rule.” We have way too many hedgehogs today. In thinking about the basic tenets of the CIO role, shouldn’t CIOs aspire to be polymaths, since they should have intimate knowledge of not only IT, but also operations, sales, supply chain, finance, marketing, strategy and how all that fits together?

Mirchandani: Absolutely. Look at Maynard Webb, who used be the CIO of eBay, then the COO, and now has his own company. He wrote something for the book that talks about how the CIO already is a polymath when you look at today’s IT function: A budget manager, an operations guru because they have to report SLAs, and they are strategists if they’re aligned with the business. Why did you write this book—my guess is to show off your Rolodex?

Mirchandani: Well, I do have a pretty good Rolodex. But from writing my “New Florence. New Renaissance” blog I was seeing innovation that wasn’t getting much play, more of these “compound polymath” solutions. That was the inspiration: There’s a lot of innovation going on outside the consumer space. Part of our issue is that we live in a world where if Steve Jobs sneezes it gets reported over and over for the next seven days.

One of the key stories from the book was the day I spent at GE’s Global Research Center in New York. I walked out of there totally fascinated in what they were doing in all kinds of disciplines, and you know what, they have less than 500 Twitter followers. That is the jarring contrast we live in. We’re paying way too much attention to self-indulgent, individual consumer and social technologies when the world’s problems are screaming for big, complex solutions. Chapter 21 profiles BP and the innovative processes inside its CTO organization. That certainly can be taken out of context in light of what’s happening right now in the Gulf of Mexico. What’s the one thing you’d want people to know about that section and what its CTO is truly doing?

Mirchandani: The interviews were conducted last fall. You can read it two ways: One is this took place way before the big spill. On the other hand, there are people who will say: “This is whitewash with BP.” Absolutely not. They didn’t know this was going to happen. They had shared what they had been doing for 10 years with me; the book is not a retrospective rewrite of history.

My only hope is that whoever has an open mind will read the chapter and say: “Wow. This is not a company that blindly ignores safety. In fact, they’ve been doing some innovative things to bring safety to refineries and pipelines.”

And the other thing is that it comes back to my question of grand challenges: Can you imagine what new challenges are coming up from this oil spill that none of us really knew about? Many of the cranks who follow enterprise software are pretty skeptical that real innovation is actually happening today—and not just new software licensing schemes or small iterations in the software. Are there any truly innovative things happening in enterprise software—taking on the grand challenges—at big traditional vendors, such as Oracle, SAP or Microsoft?

Mirchandani: If you look at the micro level, clearly there is stuff going on in pockets. SAP’s in-memory computing and sustainability initiatives, for instance. But step back and say: For the $75 billion to $100 billion that SAP customers spend on the software, is that enough? I think the answer is a resounding no.

You can’t just look at innovation in isolation. It’s got to be based on investment. Enterprise technologies, in general, are showing a really poor return on innovation. Look at Verizon: They don’t even have the word “research” in their annual report. For real?

Mirchandani: Yes. There are some pockets in the industry—Google, Apple, Intel—where innovation is happening. But the rest of the stuff is just about associating with innovation or milking what they innovated 10, 15 or 20 years ago. And that is the sickening state of IT right now. In Chapter 18, you write about cloud computing and profile’s efforts. Why—what made them worthy of this kind of recognition? Are they truly a Renaissance tech company or did you and CEO Marc Benioff just hit it off?

Mirchandani: It’s not just I’ve got NetSuite and Workday in the cloud computing section. Yeah, but Benioff wrote the Forward to the book, and you cite him numerous times.

Mirchandani: I would say that he’s been influential not just in delivering a solution, but he’s been influential in sticking his neck out, if you will. He doesn’t mind taking shots at traditional vendors. And [] is the most successful cloud vendor out there; that, in itself, justified some amount of ink.

Ten years ago, if you look back, the problem wasn’t that software quality was poor or that it wasn’t functional. [] looked at the problem and said: Everything around the software is broken.

Benioff didn’t just define his vision as creating another software company. He defined a grand challenge: I’m going to do what the system integrators, outsourcers and hosters do: Packing all that into one nice package and delivering it on one SLA. Only now are we appreciating the vision that he had. So I heard that your book has been optioned by Hollywood, with Leonardo DiCaprio to star and Martin Scorsese to direct. Is that true?

Mirchandani: Yes, it is! [laughs]

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