Innovation for a new world order

26 Mar 2008

Irishman Martin Curley is Intel’s global head of innovation and author of a new book on how to get the balance right between innovation and IT.

In 16th-century Italy, the political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli wrote: “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.”

Machiavelli also pointed out: “There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to institute a new order of things.”

According to Martin Curley, global director of IT innovation and research at Intel, this is exactly the kind of scenario faced by executives in Irish firms keen to drive new products and services that will transform them into truly global businesses.

Curley heads up Intel’s Global IT Innovation & Research Organisation in Leixlip, where Intel, one of the jewel’s in Ireland’s industrial crown, employs almost 5,000 people.

In his role, Curley is responsible for driving new practices and uses of IT across the Intel corporation worldwide, as well as bringing emerging technologies from R&D to life in the areas of business, health and education.

Curley is also the co-author of a new book Managing IT Innovation for Business Value, which provides practical strategies for IT and business managers in SMEs and corporations who want to drive change in their organisation.

While a company like Intel is a completely different scale of beast to that of an SME, Curley says the challenges are the same. “You need to take risks and embrace change. Embarking on an R&D course of action is effectively a creative and diffusive process. The hardest part is the diffusion of an idea – everybody has to agree for it to be accepted.”

Curley says he took the challenges of managing change and innovation in a company like Intel and decided to write a book that could be used to the advantage of external business and IT executives. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many people have found it useful. My department is in charge of efficiency efforts that could save Intel billions of dollars. It’s a challenge to take something that works in California and apply it in Ireland.”

He says the process of taking an idea and maturing it into either a cost-saving innovation internally or a ground-breaking new product for the market is largely a mental process but also a matter of diplomacy and politics. His ideas are being noted not only by Intel but also by large organisations like Astra Zeneca and Volvo.

“Innovation is really a discipline that requires careful management internally and externally. I apply six vectors to the discipline of innovation: it is either to address an opportunity or a problem; technology can often be the easiest rather than hardest part; what is the business case for it?; what business processes have to change?; what organisational changes are need?; and society’s or the business’s ability to adapt. These hold true for an SME as much as for a large company like Intel.”

Curley says the business case is often the trickiest part of an innovation or R&D strategy. “Before 9/11, the business case for change for most businesses didn’t matter. After 9/11, the world economy shifted from irrational optimism to irrational pessimism and it’s only now that things are approached evenly.”

Curley says proponents of change need to be able to shrewdly marry the technology strategy with the business strategy.

“Ryanair have been selective around their use of technology but have almost 100pc of bookings over the internet. In most organisations, 6pc is the average success rate for delivering the benefits promised by innovation.”

While most firms are being told to pick up the pace of R&D, organisations like Intel and Microsoft, Curley says, are hyper-innovative and need to either slow down the innovation cycle or become adept at finding use for their new technologies. “We can be accused of producing new technologies faster than the market can absorb. Intel has products in the market right now that didn’t exist a year ago.”

He says the route to successful R&D lies in uniting new ideas with business realities. “Innovation is a team sport; one person could have an idea but it takes a lot of people to make it possible. Successful products are often 20pc invention and 80pc combining existing ideas with emerging knowledge.”

Much of Curley’s work in Leixlip centres on researching digital nations, an area Ireland wants to excel in. “There are four vectors: broadband, PC penetration, e-services for citizens and digital literacy. Ireland has much room for improvement across all these. There’s a lot of talk about the ‘knowledge economy’ but the competition internationally for this crown is as fierce if not fiercer. Ireland really needs to work on its competititveness.”

He hits out at those who say manufacturing is no longer relevant. “Manufacturing creates the wealth that enables you to have a services economy. Our economy would be in poor shape if we did not have manufacturing.”

For Ireland to become a genuine export-driven economy, Curley says there are hurdles to be overcome. “Ireland has high costs and these are driven by land costs. There is also a gap in the entrepreneurial portfolio. A lot of bright business people who could have built great export firms went into the property game instead.

“The current property slowdown could be a good thing for industry as these people might be driven back into creating new businesses that export.

“Property doesn’t do anything for international competitiveness, it only makes us more uncompetitive,” Curley warned.

By John Kennedy