Innovation and the Inherent Bias of Technology

Narcissus (Carravagio, C. 1597-99)

The Imherent Bias of Technology

“Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral” declared Melvin Kranzberg.

Indeed, not only is technology un-neutral, it has an intrinsic bias. In the process of defining and implementing software to perform certain tasks and solve particular problems, the designers make many assumptions and decisions—most of which are irreversible—about the intended tasks, workflows, work environment, and user profiles. Unintentionally, the marketers and designers of software tools introduce a bias.

Douglas Allchin maintains that in itself this inherent bias does not pose a problem, but it does dictate how the technology is being used, and who can and cannot use it. Consequently, the innate bias influences the ability of the organization to realize the full value of the technology.

Yet another unintended consequence of intrinsic biases and limitations is that frequently general-purpose software is used in ways its designers did not anticipate, akin to using your shoe to hammer a nail. Think, for example, about the rampant exploitation of Excel spreadsheets and lengthy email threads as product data management and version control tools. Creative use of technology shouldn’t necessarily be admonished, but it can quickly lead to the proliferation of inefficient and risky workflows and decision making.

In a similar vein, organizations can easily become enslaved by inherent biases, methods and workflows that squander user creativity and flexibility. These imposed biases impact the product innovation and development process from early inception, and persist all the way through the design, manufacturing, deployment, and disposal.

Product Development Process

As described in my book The Outcome Economy, many product organization are susceptible to acute myopia. Market analysis and functional requirements are often based on biased, incomplete or out-of-date views of target markets, consumers, and competitors.

This myopia is a result of the organizational silos that have been reinforces over decades of functional and technology specialization, and organizational processes designed to support and protect, these structures. Not surprisingly, many software tools, and, in particular, enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, are designed to mimic this organizational structure and, inadvertently, emphasize the silo-oriented culture. A bias is introduced.

But new technologies and business models can circumvent much of the unintended bias introduced by software vendors, allowing organizations to drive higher usage and reap greater value from their tools.

The Connected Enterprise

The digitization of the product value chain and the adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT) is helping organizations span organizational silos by collecting and sharing information, in real time if needed, across functional silos.

Rich, unbiased, multidisciplinary information about products and customers that can shared across multiple functional areas and stakeholders radically enhances the ability of the organization to make better decisions and accelerate the innovation and development of new products and services.

Design Tools

Design engineers have been using modeling, simulation, and other computer-aided engineering tools for decades. But early CAE tools were computing-resources hungry and often required expensive, dedicated hardware, making the software available to a small elite group of engineers.

Even as rapid increase in computing power and drop in prices made scientific computing ubiquitous, the complex and idiosyncratic nature of advanced CAE tools kept it the interest of a small user community. Consequently, software vendors kept prices high and employed restrictive licensing policies, limiting its use to a few.

The restricted access to CAE resources created a limited bandwidth for simulation, testing and exploring multiple design ideas. Design engineers could investigate only a few “best” ideas, one at a time. As a result, CAE tools were used primarily to validate design ideas after they have already been through the “innovation funnel,” possibly leaving behind high potential innovations that were not evaluated properly.

Cloud-based PLM, CAD and CAE tools, coupled with subscription-based licensing, are challenging the prevailing ivory tower mentality, democratizing access to product design tools. Computing power is no longer a scarce resource. It is an abundant resource that encourages repetitive, rapid experimentation and innovation.

Materials and Manufacturing Processes

While innovators and designers continue to push to accomplish as much as possible in silico, and much is possible nowadays due to ubiquitous computing, physical prototyping is still needed to validate complex concepts, test multiple concepts with focus groups, or validate manufacturability.

The limitations, cost, and time to produce physical prototypes using traditional manufacturing methods forced organizations to limit the number of physical prototypes.

Two technologies are making rapid headway enable rapid low cost evaluation of prototypic of innovative concepts:

Virtual Reality

Manufacturing companies are acceleration the use of virtual reality technology to let designers and focus group users experience designs in ways that previously were possible using only physical prototypes.  And the incremental cost of validating design alternatives or product variants is negligible.

3D Printing

3D printing technology began as a lower-cost, direct alternative to rapid prototyping using reductive manufacturing methods.

But as 3D printing technology is maturing and becoming a viable replacement for traditional manufacturing, designers are able to remove yet another bias imposed by the limitations of manufacturing technologies. Using CAD and CAE CAD tools optimized for 3D printing, engineers employ organic shapes and geometries, which cannot be realized using standard machining processes, to design parts with greater strength, reduced weight, and lower cost.

The Antibodies of Innovation

Many companies, even successful ones, struggle to innovate. 75% of companies surveyed by the Innovation Leadership Study, carried out jointly by IESE Business School and Capgemini Consulting, report less than 50% innovation success rate. Only 7% of companies worldwide are considered innovation leaders, achieving over 75% success rate.

This and countless other studies offer detailed analyses but often just a vague advice on creating and implementing innovation strategies, developing innovation leadership, and instilling an innovation culture in product organizations.

Myopic organizational culture, suboptimal innovation processes, and the intrinsic bias introduced by software tools become antibodies of innovation, impeding time to market and hampering the market success of new products.

You may discover that it’s easier to drive change from the bottom up, from within the community of innovators and design engineers, by introducing opportunities to utilized new design, testing and manufacturing technologies. Technologist are likely to respond to those more readily than to a vague call to improve the organization’s innovation culture.

Image: Narcissus (Carravagio, C. 1597-99)