The unheralded innovations CIOs may overlook

The CIO is presenting about the exciting opportunity for his public utility with the coming trend of “smart grids ” and other industry innovations.

Unfortunately, his back – office system was designed for manual meter reading every 30 to 60 days. In the new world of smart meters, communications with customers would become much more real time. The meters would facilitate consumers selling surplus energy from their solar panels and wind turbines back to the grid, as is already common in Germany.

That is a good reason to upgrade your customer systems. The CIO has done the numbers, and the cost of custom modifications to his old “Shouse ” would have been expensive on its own. The packaged solution from SAP is a less – risky decision.

He then presents a slide that draws attention. It shows Accenture would need 40,000 person – days to implement the system. Some back – of – napkin numbers show the project would cost $150 million to $200 million over the next few years, considering what the company would pay SAP, Accenture, its infrastructure provider, and its internal staff.

The expensive back – office investment would likely smother the benefits offered by the smart grid. Over the last couple of decades, companies around the world have spent more than $2 trillion on similarly well – intentioned SAP projects that would not meet most definitions of ” innovation. “

Can you imagine what China could deliver for $2 trillion as it redefines time and economics in its rush to develop bullet trains and wind farms while we have been investing it in back – office systems?

We are not just picking on SAP and Accenture — both are also innovating.

Or consider the opportunistic behaviour around sustainability. Terrachoice has been surveying brands for several years and concluded, in its 2009 report, that 98 percent of ” green ” products are committing at least one of what it calls its ” Seven Sins of Greenwashing. ” Those sins range from false claims to irrelevant statements on product labels. It defines “greenwashing” as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.”

Let us note that there is innovation and then there is innovation by association — “spray-painted” innovation. Fortunately, as we describe next, there is also plenty of unheralded innovation going on.

Less Visible Signs of
Our New Renaissance

Most people have heard of the iPhone. Many of us have seen a DIAD but probably cannot recall what it is. It is the device that helps UPS drivers in their brown trucks deliver 22 million packages a day during the peak holiday season. It was introduced back in 1990, way before the iPhone. Now in its fourth generation, it does many of the things an iPhone does. And its battery lasts much longer than the iPhone’s.

A delivery information acquisition device (DIAD) allows the driver to scan the package bar code, collect the receiver ’ s signature electronically, type in the receiver ’ s last name, and push a single key to complete the transaction via the mobile network or by Wi – Fi — no need to activate a cell phone or return to the vehicle. It supports a Bluetooth wireless personal area network and an infrared port to communicate with peripheral devices and customer PCs/printers. It also has a GPS chip to allow UPS to track the whereabouts of its trucks.

Every UPS driver logs into a central ODS (On – Demand Services) system first thing in the morning. This allows dispatchers to access the driver via the DIAD throughout the day via text messages. Virtually all drivers start their day with a list of predefined customer pickup locations. ODS allows the addition of a one – time pickup to a driver’s work list on the fly, depending on which driver is nearest.

The 100,000 DIADs are only a small part of the technology landscape at UPS, which uses 15 mainframes, more than 11,000 servers, and 150,000 workstations. UPS says its package tracking is done by the world ’ s largest

DB2 site (the IBM database software). It is the largest user of mobile minutes in the world., available in 32 languages, handles 35 million tracking requests on a peak day during holiday season.

Its technology helps optimize truck routes and minimize left turns. It is investing in a variety of fuel – effi cient trucks and techniques, such as continuous descent approach, to glide its planes for fuel effi ciency and noise reduction.

Yet most of us do not marvel when Mr. Brown — the UPS delivery person — stops by. We similarly do not realize how broadly talented are colleagues like Gretchen Lindquist and Edgar Moore.

Lindquist works in IT security for a large multinational in Houston, Texas. She is also a soprano soloist at her local church. Her husband, Moore, is professor of music at a local college and a conductor of a men ’s chorus. Lindquist is also his recording engineer.

Their music has made her a linguist of sorts: “Having learned Latin by rote repetition at Mass as a small child before I could even read, learning to sing works in Latin such as the Verdi Requiem was not too difficult. However, learning to sing in new – to – me languages such as Catalan, Polish, and Russian was a matter of a lot of listening and repetition, and that was how I did it.”

Lindquist’s master’s thesis was focused on a Renaissance – era bishop, Marco Girolamo Vida, and his work De Dignitatae Republicae ( “On the dignity of the republic “), which is about the timeless question of the value of civic life and government. The thesis contrasted the bishop ’ s views on statecraft with those of Machiavelli and Erasmus.

The couple spends as much time on the road as they can. Lindquist says: ” We both enjoy combining cultural/artistic activities and active recreation when we travel. I have taken a pair of inline skates along and gone skating in various U.S. and international cities including New York, Denver, Santa Fe, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, London, Aberdeen, Dubai, and Singapore. “

There is more to Lindquist, including ” gardening, three dogs, animal activism and environmentalism, and healthy gourmet cooking. ” In his spare time, Moore rebuilds classic British cars and is a Hollywood movie buff, and he almost became a baseball umpire.

Their varied talents, travels, and experiences probably do not show in her company ’ s or his college ’ s skills database. But they should. Put several Lindquists and Moores together, and we can create polymaths of innovative enterprises.

Or how about the Amish?

Hold on now.

The Amish, with their straw hats and horse buggies, did not adopt two of the most impactful technologies of the twentieth century: electricity and the automobile. Why would they care about the technology of the twenty – fi rst?

“The Amish are not Luddites — though their view of technology veers sharply from the mainstream, ” says Dr. Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist & Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. He is leader of a research project with a working title of ” From the Buggy to the Byte: How the Amish Tame Technology. ” He continues:

Amish engineers are expert at stripping electric motors from shop equipment and replacing them with air or hydraulic ones powered by diesel engines, which are common in change – minded settlements. This so – called Amish electricity [air and hydraulic power] is widely used to operate state – of – the – art machinery — table saws, sanders, grinders, drill presses, and large metal presses.

In some Amish settlements, battery – powered word processors are accepted, but not computers. One Old Order inventor, assisted by non -Amish technicians, developed a classic word processor, essentially a basic computer with a Microsoft operating system. With a small monitor, it supports word processing and spreadsheet software, but it has been neutered to disable the use of email, Internet access, video games, and other interactive media.

An Amish shop developed an alternator that mounts on the axle of a buggy and uses the wheel rotation to recharge the battery which powers lights and signals. And get this — the manufacturing is contracted to a factory in China.

It certainly sounds like we can learn from the Amish as we look for sustainable technologies.

The UPS DIAD, Lindquist and Moore, the Amish — no, they will never be written about in the same vein as Leonardo or Apple, but they are also signs of our New Renaissance.
Reprinted with permission from The New Polymath: Profiles in Technology-Compound Innovation, by Vinnie Mirchandani and published by John Wiley & Co. All rights reserved.

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