IBM: The 'next big thing' no longer exists

Era of technology breakthroughs for their own sake rather than for profit is over, says innovation exec Nicholas Donofrio.

SINGAPORE--An era of inventions ended with the passing of the 20th century, says a prominent thought leader from IBM.

Nicholas Donofrio, Big Blue's executive vice president of innovation and technology, made the declaration on Tuesday in an interview with ZDNet Asia. He was in Singapore for the first gathering of the Infocomm International Advisory Panel, organized by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore.

Nicholas Donofrio
Nicholas Donofrio

"The fact is that innovation was a little different in the 20th century. It's not easy (now) to come up with greater and different things," Donofrio said.

"If you're looking for the next big thing, stop looking. There's no such thing as the next big thing," he added.

That is not to say that the 21st century does not also require invention, creation and discovery, he said. But these days, people are looking for value that arises from a creation and not just looking at technology for its sake, he explained.

When it comes to innovation, there is a need to think collaboratively and in a multifaceted manner, as this determines who wins and who loses, he said.

Donofrio added that innovation today is more about services, process, business models or cultural innovation than just product innovation.

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"People all around the world are telling us the same thing," Donofrio said. "IBM did a survey of 750 (chief information officers), and all of them listed innovation as a top priority. This is what I spend my time on, what I worry about."

Room to think
To foster a culture of innovation in the company, IBM set up ThinkPlace, an online community for its employees, nine months ago. At ThinkPlace, participants are encouraged to put up ideas, which are evaluated and then rewarded or redirected accordingly.

"In the late 1980s, IBM got into trouble and did away with suggestions," Donofrio said, referring to the corporate turmoil that IBM underwent as it headed into the 1990s. The company reported a $4.97 billion loss in 1992 which, at that time, was the largest single-year corporate loss in the history of the United States. After Lou Gerstner was named CEO in 1993, he helped turn IBM around.

According to Donofrio, IBM employees have contributed close to 5,000 ideas to date, and about 100 of those are being evaluated. The ideas cover products, processes and services.

IBM seeks to cultivate the spirit of innovation outside the company too, Donofrio pointed out. There is even a group at the company "looking hard at collaborating with other people" on future technology. A key example is IBM's alliance with Sony and Toshiba on the Cell chip.

In addition, IBM organized the Global Innovation Outlook. The GIO series of discussions, which took place in 2004 and 2005, brought together IBM workers and thought leaders, and participants from academia and industry around the world.

For GIO 2.0 last year, more than 180 IBM ecosystem partners from around the world participated in 15 daylong sessions held in China, India, Brazil, Switzerland and the United States, discussing the future of the enterprise, transportation and the environment.

And in April of last year, IBM launched the Genographic Project together with the National Geographic Society. The project is a five-year research partnership that aims to map how the Earth was populated using sophisticated laboratory and computer analysis of human DNA, contributed by hundreds of thousands of people.

Just this week, IBM announced that it will give qualified partners access to its renowned research organization.

Jeanne Lim of ZDNet Asia reported from Singapore.

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