In my last post I discussed technological convergences. I didn’t really discuss anything ground breaking or earth shattering. We all know these things happen. Even if we never really make a note of it. What’s a more interesting question though is why do some companies, like Apple and Blackberry, succeed and others like Microsoft and Rio (early MP3 maker) fail, either in creating technologies that converge or create technologies that then fail.
One of the first reasons is the culture of the company. To create a totally different product that will shake the core business firms may have to do something called “corporate venturing.” This is where a company decides they are going to take people that normally work on the major product and put them into a different area and seclude them and allow them to create a new product. Whatever sort of leadership structure develops, develops. It really doesn’t matter if this matches the rest of the firm. Essentially, these people are put into a position where they are starting a new company. Apple famously did this with the original Macintosh program. It was called a skunk works area. Of course recombining the two portions of a company creates huge problems, but good management can figure out how to deal with this.
Another piece required for a firm to successfully move into a new product space is the ability to identify the market need. This one is pretty obvious, but it still needs mentioning. In many cases it’s really obvious that there’s a product space and that some one should fill it. When companies don’t move into it there must be some sort of reason.
One of those reasons comes down to firm capabilities. Every firm has something at its core that it’s best at. I would argue that Microsoft is best at taking advantage of a virtual monopoly of a platform and moving into new directions within that platform. Internet Explorer and the Office Suite are the best example of this. Microsoft has also tried to do this with servers and other peripheries. Which is why Microsoft has had difficulty moving into other platform positions. They have failed (or mixed results at best) over and over again with phone OSes because it doesn’t rely on their dominate platform.
Another company that is an R&D powerhouse in energy but has failed at anything outside of their major focus is Shell. As a major energy company you’d expect Shell to be moving into other types of energy production to make massive amounts of money in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. You’d actually be right. They have tired and failed. Aside from having a failed solar industry Shell has a moderately successful Wind program. Between the two it actually makes sense why solar failed and wind is doing well.
First, wind is closer to extracting material from the ground than making energy from the sun is. Now hang on, I know, but Shell has to maintain offshore oil rigs in tough conditions. Understanding how to build a wind farm out in the ocean has some similarities. Shell doesn’t actually make the windmills themselves, they buy the windmills and put them together to harvest energy. Shell was trying to make solar panels. Intel would be a significantly better solar panel producer than Shell. Why? Because solar panels are semiconductors. You make them with similar machines the technologies are adjacent to each other.
What’s technological adjacency? It’s whenever you are able to use your current skills and apply them with some research to a related technological field. I’ll discuss this more in my next blog.