A common misconception is that technology, in and of itself, is innovation – that technology by itself can be “disruptive.” That is false. Technology is power – the potentiality for innovation – in a raw and unexpressed sense. Innovation proper consists in the right implementation of a given technology, through its application to a given business context.
I spent over a decade in martial arts and combat sports so my easiest point of reference for the intersection of technology and its applications are weapons. A bo staff is but a shaft of wood – a mere splinter of a tree. However, in the right hands it can be used to create distance between oneself and one’s opponents, to deflect assaults, to instill uncertainty through a dance of circular deceit, and to strike down opposition with the full force of one’s body. The perennial debate of “which weapon is better?” or “which style is better?” can be resolved by understanding that the degree of mastery over a tool is the largest predictor of success in most cases, when comparing tools from the same technology base. In this sense, I do not recognize swords as necessarily superior to the staff (even one of the most famous swordmasters, Musashi, preferred to use wooden swords, the bokken). These are all feudal weapons that belong to the same use case of hand-to-hand combat. In a war between weapons of the same technological class, it is the degree of mastery that will determine the winner.
However, when tools are of a completely different technological class, mastery is absolutely irrelevant. A neophyte in possession of a superior technology will be able to conquer the master of a lesser technology: the disproportionately small number of conquistadors that it took to dominate the Americas is startling until we realize how great a difference superior technology makes. We are now in a position to integrate these insights into a conversation on innovation.
In the same way that a staff lying on the floor is harmless, the next big thing in information communication technologies (ICT – we should really stop calling it high technology) means nothing unless it can be meaningfully applied in a given business context. How is a technology applied to a business? Most fundamentally, through the business model. Unless a given technology enhances an element of the business model, it’s not really being applied and can’t be considered an innovation. Analogously, unless a given weapon is being used by a warrior, it’s not really threatening – in many respects, neutral objects become weapons in the hands of a warrior. When a business is truly implementing a technology, the imagery I want us to have is of a warrior holding a weapon (as opposed to the weapon lying on the floor) – the technology at that point is being equipped. Technology as equipment is technology in use.
With technology-as-equipment, the business model then becomes the technique of use for said equipment just as there are schools of techniques for manipulating feudal weaponry. I spent many years in Goju-ryu karate, a body of techniques for applying the body and weapons, just we may say that SaaS is a body of techniques for implementing software in a business context. Again, the master of a lesser technology’s techniques is no match for the neophyte of a greater technology. This is the simplest way to understand why amateurs in business who are experimenting on the frontiers of new technologies have been able to supplant the incumbent business leaders of their time.
The purpose in writing this piece has been less about working through the concept of innovation logically than about providing parallels that help elucidate the underlying nature of innovation, at the intersection of business and technology. Namely, that innovation consists is in the implementation of technology through the business model of a given venture.
If there is one last piece of wisdom that we can extract from the pervading warrior metaphor, it’s that we should never get so lost in our technologies so as to allow them to define our identity and social structure. The minute that we mix technology with social structure, we have given it layers of (unnecessary) meaning that restrict its growth and, further, our capacity to grow through the development of greater technologies. Rather, it is in viewing technology through a detached utilitarian lens – to view technologies as bodies of tools and techniques – that we can best see its raw essence as a vehicle of power amplification. How we apply this power matters greatly.