Star Trek, innovation theory and “dominant designs”

Article discussed:  Rebecca M. Henderson and Kim B. Clark (1990) “Architectural Innovation: The Reconfiguration of Existing Product Technologies and the Failure of Established Firms” Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 9-30.

Hugh_bodyThere’s an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation called I, Borg, which is useful for thinking about innovation theory and ‘dominant design’.  No, seriously.

In it, the Good Guys (you can tell, because they’re mostly human) have captured a Bad Guy (wears black), an individual member of a hive mind called ‘The Borg’.

According to wikipedia

“Chief Engineer La Forge and Commander Data assist Dr. Crusher in bringing the Borg back to health. As they come to understand the workings of the Borg, La Forge and Data postulate an idea of using the Borg drone as a weapon of mass destruction. By implanting an unsolvable geometric formula into his mind and returning him back to the Collective, the formula should rapidly spread (similar to a computer virus) and disable the Borg.”

So, in my analogy, the Borg would be the existing company – big, powerful and confident that they knew what was best for everyone – competitors and supply chains (to be swallowed/vertically integrated), their own staff (to be hierarchised) and customers (to be monopolised if possible).  And they’d take what they thought was a ‘normal’ innovation within their ‘dominant design’.  And over time, it would seriously stuff them up.

The paper (Henderson and Clark, 1990) is seriously rich, and deserves more than a mildly forced sci-fi analogy.  But life is short, and I’ve a PhD to write…  Here are a couple of quotes from it, that should perhaps help

A dominant design;

The emergence of a new technology is usually a period of considerable confusion. There is little agreement about what the major subsystems of the product should be or how they should be put together. There is a great deal of experimentation (Burns and Stalker, 1966; Clark, 1985). For example, in the early days of the automobile industry, cars were built with gasoline, electric, or steam engines, with steering wheels or tillers, and with wooden or metal bodies (Abernathy, 1978). These periods of experimentation are brought to an end by the emergence of a dominant design (Abernathy and Utter-back, 1978; Sahal, 1986).

(Henderson and Clark, 1990: 14)

And an example of people not understanding that the parts might be re-arranged, and there is a larger system out there (in which the minor innovation could ruin your whole day/week/year/decade/livelihood) –

In the mid-1950s engineers at RCA’s corporate research and development center developed a prototype of a portable, transistorized radio receiver. The new product used technology in which RCA was accomplished (transistors, radio circuits, speakers, tuning devices), but RCA saw little reason to pursue such an apparently inferior technology. In contrast, Sony, a small, relatively new company, used the small transistorized radio to gain entry into the U.S. market. Even after Sony’s success was apparent, RCA remained a follower in the market as Sony introduced successive models with improved sound quality and FM capability. The irony of the situation was not lost on the R&D engineers: for many years Sony’s radios were produced with technology licensed from RCA, yet RCA had great difficulty matching Sony’s product in the marketplace( Clark, 1987).

(Henderson and Clark, 1990: 10)

As someone recently suggested, I should get a life…


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