Paving the path for innovation

Paving the path for innovation McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 10, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 08
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > January 10, 2002 > Paving the path for innovation

Paving the path for innovation

"You'd find it hard to name more than a handful of companies that have succeeded in innovating over more than several economic cycles," states management professor Margaret Graham, a leading scholar of the history of industrial research. This explains what is so remarkable about Corning Incorporated, the venerable 150-year-old specialty materials manufacturer that has remained on the cutting edge from light bulbs to fiber optics, and is the subject of her in-depth study, Corning and the Craft of Innovation, published last year by Oxford University Press.

Innovation, one might intuitively expect, is among those attributes all corporations would strive to exemplify. Not necessarily, she argues.

"Companies with an investment in existing technologies, existing networks and markets find it difficult to make a smooth transition from an old wave to a new wave," she explains.

Citing the example of Kodak, she discusses how, as far back as the 1960s, the company identified that digital imaging was destined to displace the 35-millimetre film camera. Instead of ignoring this fact, Kodak invested in research and development to secure future leadership with this eventual technology, while continuing to defend its position as a leading film manufacturer and processor. This strategy, in essence, requires that a company enter into competition with itself by developing the next generation of products that will render its current bread and butter obsolete.

Corning has thrived because it has consistently discovered new applications as a specialty materials supplier. Beginning in the 1870s when it set the standard for coloured glass used in railroad signals, the company's track record in innovation allowed it to carve out profitable new niches. The company went from supplying glass tubing for Thomas Edison's light bulbs in the 1880s, to developing several new silicone-based products, to its current role as a global giant in supplying optical fiber and photonics to the telecommunications industry. And that's not to mention the Pyrex and Corning Ware products that made it a staple in every kitchen.

Innovation, she writes, is "a set of skills and sensibilities that cannot be reduced to a science, and that is motivated by purposes that go beyond simple materialism." It is a forward-looking quality that becomes embedded in the corporate culture.

"The managerial hierarchy was created almost to dampen innovation because it's about making systems more important than individuals," she goes on. "A characteristic shared by innovative companies is a tremendous respect for the individual."

Corning is noted for its tradition of tolerance for the maverick innovator; indeed, for nurturing such individuals and benefiting from their inventiveness. It has given its people the opportunity to exercise judgement and experiment according to their instincts. But, they've also inculcated them into other elements of the business, always instilling a pride in the notion that Corning does things differently.

Innovation is a risk. So, too, is not innovating. When a company becomes so focused on the present that it neglects the future, it jeopardizes its chances to thrive over the long run.

"Being a historian," Graham asserts, "is the ideal thing for thinking about innovation."

The long view is the best way to understand the dynamics of how innovation happens. And companies are increasingly becoming interested in preserving and learning from their particular corporate memories. Hence, the success of the Winthrop Group, which Graham co-founded in 1982 along with two other historians and an archivist while teaching at the Harvard Business School.

It is one of a very few companies to offer corporate history writing services, producing scholarly studies on behalf of clients that want to have their internal records culled in order that their story be captured. Her Corning book is part of a two-volume history prepared by Winthrop.

Notwithstanding that the histories are produced in collaboration with the subject, Graham is adamant that the objectivity of the work is preserved. Winthrop will only undertake a project on the condition that it is accorded unrestricted access to company archives and personnel. And, while it meets -- as in the Corning project -- with an advisory board made up of corporate executives and outside experts, it insists that its findings not be interfered with. Furthermore, that it has a relationship with the company is fully disclosed and all sources are documented.

"I would not put my name on anything that didn't live up to the demands of scholarship," says Graham, who holds both a doctorate in history and MBA from Harvard.

Hence, the books Winthrop turns out are rigorous efforts that have both internal value to the company, as well as external interest.

"There is almost no way to understand the inner workings of a company without access," she says. "Warts-and-all histories shed much light on businesses, and the interesting and exciting things they are doing is history worth telling."

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