Learning from the dead

Real innovation is messy, expensive and highly inefficient. Mostly, it just doesn’t work. Sure, when a really new idea delivers the goods, it’s great – whole new opportunities open up. But the rest of the time, when it doesn’t work out, the naysayers snicker their I-told-you-sos and everyone agrees that it never made sense anyhow.

Case in point: recently, Walmart.com announced it’s cutting underwear and socks from its Web store inventory. They’re big sellers in the brick-and-mortar Wal-Marts, but they aren’t moving on-line.

Of course, common sense could have told us that. Who’d want to buy underwear on the Web? It just costs too much to handle and ship such inexpensive stuff to make it worthwhile for consumers to get it on-line. What were the people at Walmart.com thinking?

Answer: The people at Walmart.com were thinking customers might buy boxers and briefs on-line. They tried it. It didn’t work. Now Walmart.com will try something else.

It’s a small-scale version of what the whole dot-com business has been going through. In the past few years, venture capitalists funded dot-coms to sell books, groceries, junk food, prescription drugs, toys, dog collars, baby blankets, lawn mowers, air compressors, you name it.

In the past few months, most of those dot-coms have imploded. Some were badly run, but the rest were just crazy notions that were never going to fly.

That’s innovation – one bad idea after another, punctuated only occasionally by something that actually works.

Funny thing, though: common sense won’t tell you which of those crazy dot-com ideas will work. The only way to find that out is to try them all and see which ones survive.

The rest get spiked – and the venture capitalists move on to try something else.

Sitting in an IT shop, it’s easy to feel a little smug watching all these bad ideas go down in flames. That envy we felt for dot-com paper millionaires has shifted to something a little more like gloating now. We never really thought those wild ideas could work. They didn’t – and now those dot-commers are sucking wind.

But stifle that smugness. This is the way it’s supposed to work. And we can learn a lot from those doomed dot-coms.

Sure, they hired away some of our best employees. They pushed the cost of Web and e-commerce skills way up. They got our CEOs all hot and bothered about why we were so far behind in on-line initiatives. They cost us plenty.

And while we were scraping by, juggling ERP and Y2K projects on tight budgets, they were burning through investment capital at the rate of double-digit millions per month. They snapped up the best technology money could buy and experimented with it in ways we could never afford to.

And then most of them collapsed.

We can’t afford that kind of messy, expensive, inefficient innovation. We need well-tested solutions, not risky experiments. We can’t have 90 per cent of our projects fall apart.

But the dot-coms could. And now that they’re gone, dissecting their corpses is a perfect way to profit from their experience.

Choose a few. Study them. Did their servers crash? Their networks collapse? Their middleware crater? Their transaction systems tank? Their Web engines conk out? Which of their pricey toys shone – and which stunk?

Find out. Learn which products and configurations failed and which ones came through with flying colours in the best real-world tests of technology we could ever hope for – and all on someone else’s dime.

Because after they’ve been through the messy, expensive, inefficient process of innovation, the least we should do is reap the benefits.

Hayes, a senior news columnist for Computerworld (U.S.), has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.