Visualizing Complexity

29 October 2008

I visited with David Watters of Global Advantage Consulting Group last night. A description of the visit is posted here.

Canadas Federal S&T Innovation Ecosystem Map

Canada's Federal S&T Innovation Ecosystem Map

I left the meeting thinking about the difficulties in on-line visualization of complex problems. David’s group generates large 3×5 foot posters showing the linkages and inter-relationships in public policy frameworks surrounding government and business ecosystems, such as the Canadian Federal Science and Technology Innovation ecosystem. These ecosystem maps are depictions of organizations, people, policies, regulations, laws, risks and activities that are national in scope. The paper is big and the print is small but the map still manages to get the information across.

Projected on a computer screen, however, the maps lose their appeal. There is just not enough resolution. Even with the ability to zoom in and out, there is so much information to present that the linkages are lost in the zooming. There has to be a better way.

A quick search of the web shows lots of software tools that provide information visualization capabilities. Much of this stuff was developed by or in relation to the US National Homeland Security initiatives following 9/11. While these may be good at showing trends in data, they don’t have the flexibility I’m thinking of.

Read Write Web had an excellent summary of visualization tools available on the web back in March 08. Some of these tools are very interesting. If there was a way to combine these, they may do the trick. Start with the Visual Thesaurus, an interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words, but instead of words and meaning, use organizations and functions. Make the links include such things as lines of authority, influences, lobby efforts, funding, regulatory controls and the like. Then add drill down and layering of information as in Google Earth so that information can be added or removed as required. Provide scope controls to show only the nearest links or up to the whole network. Add the ability to look at the map from a high-level as if you were in government trying to influence entire industries or switch it to look at it from the perspective of a business where you want to see how you fit with the external world.

Now, while the software tool would be cool, imagine the mountain of data required to make it useful and keep it up-to-date. This goes back to the issue of complexity and is the real value added of David’s business. The visualization tool would only provide a better way to sell this value.

MJM ConsultingStrategic Business Consulting – Helping Companies Grow

Fleeting Competitive Advantage – Sustainable Innovation

30 September 2008

What does sustainable competitive advantage mean to you? Is it a competitive advantage that has a half-life longer than Uranium or do you use sustainable in the sense of a renewable resource?

I much prefer the later analog. Despite IP protection, despite trade secrets, there is nothing so fleeting as a competitive advantage. Sustaining the competitive advantage takes real work.

Innovation is the key, and not just product innovation. Last year, I attended a presentation from Larry Keeley from the Doblin Group as part of the Wisdom Exchange this spring.  His message was simple:  Innovation is a discipline – which means there is a process involved.  People commonly think of innovation in the narrow context of products. However, there are at least nine other areas commonly used to innovate a business in addition to product innovation. Product innovation alone has a 4% success rate.  Better innovation tackles change in at least six of the following ten areas:

  • Finance

    • Business Model – how the company makes money

    • Networking – enterprise structure, value chain and partnerships

  • Process

    • Enabling Processes – Assembled capabilities you typically buy from others

    • Core Processes – proprietary processes that add value

  • Offerings

    • Product performance – basic features, performance and functionality

    • Product systems – extended systems that surround the offering

    • Services – how you help the customers

  • Delivery

    • Channel – how you connect your offering to the customer

    • Brand – how you express your offerings ideas and benefits to the customers

    • Customer Experience

 As a small case study, consider Nescafé reacting to competitive entrants such as Starbucks. Here is a blog on the subject by Thomas Otter entitled Simplicity, elegance and the Java bean. In his post, Thomas describes his adoption of the Nespresso Cube – a coffee maker with a cartridge system that is very easy to use. The product highlights a brilliant piece of innovation in the face of competitive pressure.

Nescafé`s problem: as the dominant coffee company is the world, they missed the boat on speciality coffee shops which changed the way people view coffee and created a stigma around Nescafé`s dehydrated products as inferior.

The Challenge: Regain competitive advantage by getting people to drink coffee in their homes again.

The Solution: Convert an office coffee product originally invented in 1975 into a household device (Product Systems and Core Processes). Partner with a leading design firm and create an elegant and simple device that provides espresso quality coffee with little fuss and much faster than a regular espresso machine (Product Performance and Customer Experience). Change the distribution model from grocery store sales of a commodity product to a web-based subscription service with home delivery (Channel). Use advertising and an excellent web site to build a brand (Brand). Build a community around the machines and coffee (Networking).

The Result: 25% annual growth since its launch in 1988.

The key here was not the product – that existed since 1975.  It was the change in the channel.  This was innovative brillance.