Monday, April 16, 2007

Do We Innovate Based on Where We're From?

In the Business section of last Sunday’s New York Times (April 15, 2007, page 3), journalist G. Pascal Zachary has a “Ping” column titled “Creativity, Innovation and the Cultural Parade” (read it here). In it, he develops the idea that our national origin not only has a lot to do with how a career in technology might develop, but also that there are some things about national origin that speak to the degree to which we may be innovative.

Zachary’s column follows on the heels of his Februay 11, 2007 “Ping” column titled “When It Comes to Innovation, Geography Is Destiny” (read it here). His latest, though, gets personal.

Zachary argues that if you are from a given country, you are most likely to think about innovation in a certain way. He admits the stereotypes are “crass” but states that he is reycling them “in the service of a better understanding of how innovation works.”

So, how does it all play out? If you’re Chinese, you’ll likely be a copy-cat. If you’re French, you’re probably good at big innovations that require solid government backing (he uses the recent example of the world’s fastest train) but unlikely to be the sole proprietor of a software startup because the “French business system is constraining for individuals.” Germans “excel when they control all variables.”

Like all generalizations, Zachary’s is useful only to a point. To his credit, he gives examples of countries changing: Finland from an agricultural country to a global powerhouse in mobile phone technology; Ireland becoming “home to thriving clusters in electronics and pharmaceuticals.” But where Zachary really misses the mark is that he says nothing about the amazing power unleashed when people have unfettered access to knowledge.

We see swarms of creative people working across the globe, powered by their unfettered access to knowledge and connectivity through the Internet and Web, in industry after industry. The World Wide Web itself is the product of international cooperation among individuals motivated to push Tim Berners-Lee’s idea forward and make it a reality. Yes, each individual brought her or his national “traits” to the table, but connectivity and knowledge functioned as the great equalizer. It still does today in the collaborative innovation networks spanning the globe and coming together online. Connectivity and knowledge are great equalizers; they thwart cultural imperialism; they, for instance, allow the Japanese innovator to escape the restrictions of a culture that demands peer approval before promoting an idea (one of Zachary’s generalizations).

Zachary’s analysis simply omits a huge piece of the equation that explains why innovation is thriving across all the old boundaries, with swarms of people who would never have come together in the “off-line” world.

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