Sunday, October 12, 2008

Innovation and resistance

I'm currently reading Brown and Duguid "The Social Life of Information", one of those books that periodically comes along and kickstarts the creative juices. It's full of telling anecdotes,including Bell and the telephone. The spread of the telephone, once invented, didn't just happen. It had to be marketed. Bell tried to sell patents to Western Union in the USA and the Post Office in the UK and failed in both cases. Neither company understood its usefulness. Brown and Duguid attribute this partly at least to the power of experts. The telegraph needed experts to mediate it, clerks at both ends who could encode and decode the written word into Morse code (the original codecs, one could say). I don't agree with that: the operating clerks, who were the experts B&D mention, were not in a position of sufficient power within their organisations to influence a decision like that. And if the organisations had been looking properly they should have seen the potential for expert management e.g. of cabling, switching equipment and switchboards. I would think it was more likely the standard myopia of comfortable organisations, resistance in the Argyris sense.

So Bell had to do marketing. He put phones in hotel rooms for people to ring reception with so that people who used hotels got used to them and could see their benefits. He put phones into offices for internal communication, knowing that sooner or later the penny would drop and they would realise the usefulness of the phone for external communication. To go beyond the work and hotel sectors of the population he put phones at lunch counters so that people having lunch would see other people using them, and so on, and so on.

It's a very good lesson in the way organisations respond to innovation. And it also shows that Bell knew a thing or two about marketing.

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