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Updated: June 19, 2011 18:29 IST

Exploring innovation potential in software

D. Murali
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The time has come for the Indian IT (information technology) companies to start defining the ‘what’ part of software innovation triangle, urges Navneet Bhushan, the founder-director of Bangalore-based Crafitti (http://bit.ly/F4TNavneetB). He sees this, however, as a challenge since the existing IT companies have been winning by continuing to be in the ‘how’ part of software innovation.

“Now we need to move towards the ‘what’ part and one solution that I can see and offer is Lean Inventive Systems Thinking (LIST) – a potent framework combining analytical and logical thinking with three different forms of thinking to own the future,” adds Navneet, during a recent interaction with Business Line on the sidelines of a SPIN (www.spinchennai.org) event in the city. Our conversation continues over the email.

Excerpts from the interview.

First, what is software innovation? And, why is it important?

Before getting to “software innovation,” it is important to revisit what is software. Software has been defined as instructions and data structures (computer programs) that when executed on a machine provide the desired function and performance along with documents that describe the operation and the use of programs. The essence of software entity has been described by Brooks in his classic ‘The Mythical Man-Month,’ as complexity, conformity, changeability and invisibility that make it inherently difficult to build. Further, unlike hardware, software doesn’t “wear-out,” rather it evolves by addition of new functionality.

Now, let us look at software innovation. To me, a very useful definition of innovation is successful creation of change by (new) ideas. Combining the above, software innovation has to be successful creation of change by new ideas in developing computer instructions, data structures and associated documents. This should include how to develop software, how to evaluate software, and also what software to develop to achieve the desired functionality and performance to meet a need or set of needs. I call this the software innovation triangle – the two “how’s” and one “what” of software innovation.

Coming to the importance of software innovation, software has transformed our world in multiple ways than many of us would even comprehend. In my book, ‘Strategic Decision Making – Applying the Analytic Hierarchy Process,’ I have described technology to be the most important factor defining the structure of the current and the future world, besides the factors such as power systems, geo-political systems, social systems, economic systems and forms of organisation. Starting from our mobile phone or rather mobile device – it is the inherent software-based changes that are giving us a new functionality every day.

How are large tech enterprises approaching software innovation?

I mentioned three key parts of the software innovation triangle – creating successful change in “how to develop software,” “how to evaluate software,” and most important “what software to develop.” The large tech organisations are grappling with how to use software to solve client problems, provide new ways of achieving key functions, faster, better and cheaper. In this regard, the relevant infrastructure needs to be developed. The inherent software in infrastructure (IT or non-IT) needs to be a creator of change. Also, managing the inherent information complexity that has been enmeshed in the large organisations needs to be either untangled or made useful. All these require software innovation.

The product development companies protect the “what software to be developed” part of the software innovation triangle. They define, describe, contextualise, get IPRs (intellectual property rights), and then get to the development part. In the “how to develop software,” they look for in-house software development structures, outsource to another organisation, or look for open source development.

Finally, in the third part – “how to evaluate software” – which also includes software testing, measurement, metrics, reliability and other quality metrics, they look for in-house or third-party software evaluation. In all the three, they would like to look at software innovation per se. The large IT development companies are looking at “how to develop software” and “how to evaluate software”. Specifically, Indian IT companies are focused predominantly on the “how” part of software innovation triangle. Indian IT companies need to focus on the “what” part of the software innovation triangle, as it not only has more value but it is that leg that one can protect by ways of IP rights as well.

Do you see software innovation happening in smaller enterprises, too?

Historically, large enterprises have innovation-inertia. The next software change – be it something that SAP, Dell, Amazon, Wikipedia and Google did in the 1990s, or Skype, Facebook and Twitter did in the last decade – will most likely be created by smaller enterprises. What these companies did was the “what” part, hence their valuation and value created by them was much more than say companies that were focusing on the “how” parts of the software innovation triangle.

Indian IT services companies have been predominantly focused on the “how” part of the software innovation triangle. Even large technology companies – although they themselves want to create the “what” part of software innovation – want their partners (to whom they outsource the software development) to focus on the “how” parts of software innovation. Obviously, it is in their interest to keep the software development partners to continue to be in the “how” part of the software innovation triangle. Software development companies need to figure out “how” to do the “what” part of software innovation.

What do you see as the major challenges faced by software innovation?

Scale is the first challenge. We are making big systems and these large systems are evolving into humungous systems. The methods, principles, capabilities one uses to make systems at a particular scale are found insufficient when the scale increases and complexity explodes.

The glue that is making systems huge and evolving into higher and bigger forms is software. The increasing demands on “what” of software innovation at large scale need new “hows” of software innovation. Scale requires multiple changes in the way human-machine interaction evolves, decentralised ways to implement network forms instead of hierarchical forms of system organisation, ways in which design is becoming central to creating meaning; top-down engineering is replaced by computational emergence based on mechanism design, and adaptable and robust system infrastructure, and system quality for the uncertain future.

Since software is the glue, “what” software to build to solve world problems pertaining to sustainability, harmonising global economic imbalances, creating a connected future for the globe and minimising terrorism causes and impacts, are the key challenges.

Any suggestions on a framework that can promote software innovation?

Surprisingly, despite the 150-year-old proposal by Darwin, “evolution” as a model of reality is a recent phenomenon. That the technical systems, just like living beings, also evolve was discovered by a Soviet engineer, Altshuller, in 1946, after studying scores of patents in multiple domains. He used this study to propose a Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (acronym TRIZ in Russian). TRIZ identifies discrete technological stages on the lines of evolution. TRIZ evolution lines based on system laws can be very nicely used to generate next-generation concepts. As mentioned, software systems also evolve; and a software innovation framework can benefit from TRIZ.

The second component is lean thinking, coming from actual practice by Toyota. However, lean – considered by many as waste reduction (and mapped to people reduction in many IT companies) – is not what I propose. It is a ‘value maximisation’ view of lean that I would like to consider.

Finally, systems thinking – which includes scenario planning, thought experiments and understanding the new sciences of complex adaptive systems and network-centric organisations including social networks – is the third component. This combined framework I call the Lean Inventive Systems Thinking (LIST). However, LIST by no means eliminates the analytical and logical thinking that have stood the test of time. In effect, LIST integrates lean thinking, inventive thinking, and systems thinking, together with analytical and logical thinking for software innovation challenges. In my view, LIST as a five-dimensional thinking framework has great potential.

**

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