Thomas Davenport on what makes an idea “take off”
Here is an article written by Thomas Davenport for the Harvard Business blog. To check out other articles and resources and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Daily Alerts, please visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Makes an Idea Take Off?
The title of this blog series used to be “The Next Big Thing,” which meant that it addressed why some business and management ideas take off, and some don’t. The trouble is, I didn’t know the answer. Maybe that’s why the blog no longer has a name other than my own! But I’m still obsessed with the diffusion of managerial innovations.
There is little doubt, for example, that the topic of analytics — the systematic analysis of data for decision-making — has taken off. And I don’t just say this because I’ve co-authored (with Jeanne Harris and Bob Morison) a new book on the topic, Analytics at Work: Smarter Decisions, Better Results) There is plenty of other evidence.
Global IT and services firms are making big investments in analytics. For example, SAS and Accenture announced an enhanced effort to support customers with analytics last week, building on the creation of a new Accenture Analytics group. IBM announced a big new Business Analytics and Optimization services organization last April and acquired SPSS, a long-time analytics software provider, in July. Meanwhile, Oracle claims that it’s “#1 in business analytics,” which seems a dubious claim. But it’s clear that the vendors think there is big dough to be made in analytics, and they’re gearing up to make it.
OK, the big question: Why is this happening now? There are several secular trends that might explain the rise of analytics, including the increasing amount of data, more powerful hardware and software, more trained analytical professionals, etc. However, these have all been rising for decades, so I’m not quite sure why things have exploded over the last couple of years.
I did predict that analytics would take off, which is why I wrote Competing on Analytics. I might even be tempted to think that I had something to do with the rise of this idea, but evidence to the contrary is all too visible. Before that book I wrote one called Thinking for a Living about knowledge-worker productivity. Now there’s an important topic — everyone points to Peter Drucker’s comment that it is the most important economic problem of the age, and indeed it is a central problem for both countries and companies. OK, but why hasn’t it taken off? Why don’t big companies address the issue? Why don’t IT vendors and consultants focus on the problem? Why, most importantly (in my self-centered brain, anyway), did I not sell a tenth as many books on that issue as on analytics?
At least analytics and knowledge-worker productivity are important topics; both can drive fortunes and life chances. But some things take off that have little redeeming social or business value. Need I bring up Twitter again? I wrote about it in my last blog, and received lots of comments. I suspect this post will receive fewer. If you want to see the relative level of the world’s focus on analytics, knowledge-worker productivity, and Twitter, click here. Twitter appears to be getting 20 times the searches of “analytics” and an infinite number more than “knowledge-worker productivity.” What explains this vast disparity? Can Twitter cure cancer, solve poverty, or even make any money for your company?
If you do comment on this post — and I hope you do — please provide an opinion, some experience, or some data on the issue of why certain managerial innovations prosper, and some don’t. I’ll send a free copy of my new book to the commenter with the best answer (as judged by me). If you don’t have an answer but like someone else’s answer, the judge can be swayed by public opinion.
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