Back in the day, pioneers were those who ventured off into the unknown, made grand discoveries or came up with new inventions that could revolutionise the world. But today, equally revolutionary innovations are more likely to build on existing ideas. We examine how the very concept of pioneers has evolved as technology has become ubiquitous and the world increasingly complex.
What does it mean to be a pioneer in the business world these days? Does it mean you’re someone like Nikola Tesla? Or Henry Ford? Or what about Steve Jobs? Or Mark Zuckerberg? How about thinkers like Christel Kammerer, the German management consultant who invented flexitime? Or Robert Propst, the man whose Action Office system gave rise to the cubicle? You could make a pretty good case for any of them as they have all influenced the way we live and work, sometimes with very simple ideas.
However, a lot of our thinking around business pioneers is rather old-fashioned. We still tend to imagine them as people who come up with brilliant inventions: the internet, the production line, the smartphone and so on. The originators of these were, of course, all pioneers. But over the past few decades pioneering has become more about the way we do things than about physical things themselves. A good example of this is the iPod. This was not the first hard-drive MP3 player – there were a number launched before it (notably from companies such as Creative and Archos), but these remained fairly niche while the iPod created a huge new market and revolutionised the way we consumed music. The reason? Unlike its rivals it had a brilliant, highly intuitive user interface. So here’s a question. Was the pioneer in this area Compaq (which designed the first hard-drive MP3 player and licensed it to a Korean company called HanGo) or Apple?
It’s tempting to say that that Steve Jobs just took someone else’s brilliant idea and ran with it. But maybe he didn’t. Maybe Jobs and Apple were the real pioneers for seeing how an idea could be executed so much better. Perhaps the greater innovation was from the user’s perspective – you could argue that a brilliant click wheel is more innovative than putting a hard drive into a music player.
You could, incidentally, make the same argument for the GUI (graphical user interface) and the smartphone, both of which Apple did not originate but did bring to the mainstream.
In terms of pioneering business ideas, the days of the iPod can seem like a lifetime ago. But it’s indicative of the way the world has moved on. Talk to people who are innovating in the world of cloud computing and they are likely to be building on technology platforms. Effectively, they are finding ways to build and innovate using the tools provided by others such as Microsoft. Similarly, devising a new way to target Facebook ads (even if it is to influence elections) is every bit as much an innovation as developing new code.
You see this everywhere. Some of the superstar YouTubers and Instagram influencers are genuine pioneers: they saw what could be done with new tools. It is likely that we are going to see much more of this, not less. Increasingly innovations will be built upon innovations that will themselves be built upon innovations.
In a related vein, we are seeing another trend with developments. This is that innovation tends to be more collaborative than it once was. The big companies of the mid-20th century often had huge on-site labs. They owned all the expertise, and everything from basic research to prototyping was done in-house. It is hard to imagine that now in many industries.
There are several reasons for this. One is that the world is an incredibly complex place and it is unlikely that any one organisation has the necessary expertise in-house to develop big items like an aeroplane or a reactor. Thus, increasingly, innovation is done collaboratively between businesses and other organisations – which may range from small, specialist companies to universities. For big-ticket items, the days of the lone pioneer are over.
What is more, it is now very hard to innovate in one area without spilling over into others or making use of other technologies. The most obvious example of this now is how virtually all new products have some sort of digital or informational component – and, moreover, their development will have been enabled by modern computing power. This will only become truer as the internet of things takes off and artificial intelligence and machine learning become part of every innovation process. Never has the phrase ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ been more fitting.
What, then, of being a pioneer in the realm of business ideas? This sometimes gets a bad name because many people are happy to slap the innovation label on everything they do. Yet this is probably unfair. Is an innovative new form of banking or tax planning or corporate structure different from straightforward technological innovation? After all, limited liability (which first appeared in its modern form in New York in 1811) and joint stock companies (which developed, probably independently, in places like 10thcentury China and 16th-century England) are among the foundations of the modern economy. They revolutionised the financial worlds.
Again, often these idea-based innovations in process will be blended with technology. Wikipedia is an example here. The enabling technology is not especially complicated. But the idea, while simple, is revolutionary. Huge companies like Uber and AirBnB are based on an idea and the connecting power of the internet via smartphones. Technologies like 3D printing and blockchain and virtual reality will doubtless soon be used in ways their inventors could not even imagine.
Over the past few decades we have seen the rise of the innovation consultancy – small outfits that specialise in being agile, having new ideas, and looking at things in new ways. Being a pioneer has become a kind of specialisation in its own right. For those of us who have a desire to do things differently and are prepared to push for change, the opportunities to innovate have never been greater or more widely available. In our complex, modern world, perhaps we should all aspire to be pioneers.