When Should We Adopt a New Idea?

Construction Drone

Often, it’s easier to predict long-term change than it is to figure out what’s going to happen in the short-term.  This makes it really hard to develop a sensible innovation strategy.

Kodak invented digital photography, and they knew full well that eventually this would become the dominant technology.  In 1997, they predicted that this transition would happen – around 2017.  They picked the long-term trend absolutely correctly – it’s the timing they messed up.

Looking backwards now, everyone thinks that the trends were obvious. Why couldn’t the get this right?

It’s not as easy as it looks – and getting this right is going to become increasingly important as the rate of technological disruption increases.  Chunka Mui and Paul B. Carroll in their new book The New Killer Apps
outline six technologies that, in combination, will drive this change: mobile devices, social networks, cameras, sensors, cloud computing and emergent knowledge.

Here’s another example of how this might work – let’s take a look at the construction industry.

One of my collaborators likes to say that the last big innovation in construction was the invention of the brick, in Egypt a couple thousand years ago.

That exaggerates things a bit, but still, it’s not the most dynamic industry around.

And yet, things might be about to change.

Construction Drone

A construction drone builds a wall

If you put together those six technologies, you can start to see some change coming.  Cameras, sensors and mobile devices can let you build a wall with a construction drone.

Now, combine this with Building Information Modeling (BIM):

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility. A BIM is a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility forming a reliable basis for decisions during its life-cycle; defined as existing from earliest conception to demolition.

BIM uses more of these technologies.  When you store the files in the cloud, you can access the plans both on site and in the office.  If you network the data internally, you can start to track learning from project to project, creating emergent knowledge.

Now, combine this with sensors – and we can start to track every piece of material, every piece of machinery and every person on a building site.

This is the future of building.  But, when?

One of my students has put a lot of thought into this, and here is one of her experiences:

Two weeks ago, I was working with the lead asset management consultant from XXX, who is currently designing the asset management system for the Department of XXX. I broached the subject of BIM with him, and he had a surprisingly negative view. His view was that it was just an IT fad that held no value, and that asset management practitioners would just go back to using excel spread sheets to manage their processes.

This illustrates several important innovation issues:

  • Fear is an important obstacle to innovation. How can you possibly think that people will be using spreadsheets to manage projects forever?  Partly, it’s fear.  Here is how Seth Godin describes it:

    … as Steven Pressfield describes it, the resistance. The resistance is the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise. The resistance is writer’s block and putting jitters and every project that ever shipped late because people couldn’t stay on the same page long enough to get something out the door.

    The resistance grows in strength as we get closer to shipping, as we get closer to an insight, as we get closer to the truth of what we really want. That’s because the lizard hates change and achievement and risk.

    The resistance is why the first stage or responding to disruption is ridicule.  Fighting through this resistance is one of the keys to innovating.

  • You can see the S-Curve in action.  Why do ideas spread though an S-Curve:Sketch-Diffusion-300x225The time it takes to work through the period marked X always takes long than we expect it to.  One of the reasons for this is that it takes some time to figure out how to build a business model around the idea.That’s what is happening with BIM right now.  At the moment, it is at the flat part of the curve.  BIM is expensive, so only top end customers will look for construction bids that use it.  However, as it gets used more, costs will come down, and then projects run using BIM will become substantially less expensive than those using spreadsheets for planning.  That’s when it will start to take off.
  • BIM will win because of emergent knowledge.  Platforms that build emergent knowledge have been winning for a while now. Google’s search algorithm gets smarter the more people use it. Nike Fuel gets better at helping you exercise as it compiles more data from its growing user base.This might help crack one of the biggest innovation problems in project-based firms: if we learn something in one project, how do we transfer that knowledge to other ones?  With BIM, this learning will be recorded, and communicated.  This is huge.  It means that the firms using BIM will start to have much smarter internal networks.  This will be part of what drives the costs down. Emergent knowledge will win again.

The tricky part if figuring out when the change will happen.  You can get away with your spreadsheets for a few more years at least.  But that won’t last forever.

It’s probably a good time for construction firms to be thinking about this.

And if even building construction has to be thinking about disruption today, it’s probably a good time for you to think about the impact that these technologies might have in your industry as well.


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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

6 thoughts on “When Should We Adopt a New Idea?

  1. Nice, Tim. I still remember speaking about 10 years ago with a senior executive at the US’s leading merchandisers of music products (ie CDs). I asked him how he felt the emergence of mp3’s would impact his business. He dismissed the phenomena as fringe. We all know how that turned out.

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