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May - 2006 - issue > Protocol@Work
Innovation-For-The-Sake-of-Innovation
Sridhar Jayanthi
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
India is known for its large pool of smart technical talent. There is a positive emphasis on proficiency in English language and low cost. What is clear to anyone in the global software industry is that these traits will not be sufficient in the long run to maintain global dominance in software.

There are many things that we need to improve including the sophistication and size of local market for software, the university-industry-government collaboration, and the innovation culture of the software engineering talent.

Innovation means different things to different people. For some any new technical creation is innovation, for others it is an invention and yet others, it is achieving a patent. For a business to prosper, none of these definitions of innovation will satisfy unless it directly meets a customer need. Peter Drucker said, “The test of innovation lies not in its novelty, its scientific content, or its cleverness. It lies in its success in the market place.” In other words, innovation in the marketplace is being creative within boundaries of a business, with revenue goals. Invention usually relates to new markets, with no revenue goals upfront.

As a techie you can contribute to innovation and growth of your company by understanding your company’s distinctive competence – what are you known for, what is unique about you. It is important to understand your customer base – who buys your product, why do they buy from you and not your competition, and what problems are yet to be solved sufficiently for your customer. Some times this is obvious; some times it requires many visits to potential customers and partners before you understand the gaps in your solution. This is not always easy to achieve from India. Luckily there are many avenues that can be pursued:

Find a problem that is unique to the Indian market and solve it. It is much easier to understand the Indian market where we are located. This is more applicable to Indian start-ups and Indian companies that can focus on India. Ask your manager to give you opportunities to meet a few customers each quarter by joining a sales or support visit.

If your company provides you a sliver of your time away from regular projects, to focus on innovation, talk to the equivalent of product manager or chief scientist or your peers to see what areas to focus on. You can get the best recognition when your innovation addresses your current market. Try not to use your time working on patents for the sake of patents, when it is not related to your customer and has no imminent application.

Most multinational companies already have customers outside India that gives good communicative engineers an opportunity to either talk or visit them. There are product management teams who are in touch with customers who can be tapped to gain a deeper market understanding. The Internet is somewhat useful but not a substitute for talking to potential/current customers. Again, ask your manager for opportunities to participate in customer visits either over phone or in person.

If you happen to have the opportunity to do research without constraints, such as those in large technology companies, pick a customer whose problem you will solve. Frequently ask yourself “what problem am I trying to solve?” and ensure it is useful to your business.

In all cases, an innovative idea is likely to be funded further only if there is a clear business case. It is very disappointing when your “cool” idea is not recognized or funded, but it is important to understand the business reasons for this and move on to the next idea. If you understand your customer, it is only a matter of time before your innovation pays off.

Sridhar Jayanthi is the VP of Engineering and Head of Indian operations-McAfee Engineering Center. He is responsible for the Indian R&D and product development operations including the organizational development, operations strategy and project execution. He can be reached at Sridhar_Jayanthi @McAfee.com
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