There was a local opinion feature this past Monday in one of our daily newspapers about how we should be defining innovation. The author basically took Fortune and Time magazines to task for naming Mark Zuckerberg “CEO of the Year” and “Person of the Year,” respectively. Why? The author asks two questions: How does Facebook improve our lives, and where are the jobs created?
The author then goes on to herald Cargill, Mayo Clinic, and Ford Motor Company—two points out of three for being a home booster—for their quality of life improvement and employment. I’m wondering how he managed to leave 3M, Medtronic, General Mills, and others out of the mix. Regardless, his case is that jobs and quality of life breakthroughs, or real innovation, are going to come from mature companies, not operations like Facebook.
Could be, but is that the only way to define innovation? Maybe the fact that the op-ed piece was in the business section provides a big hint, but even as business people, should we define innovation with such narrow criteria? Seems like a pretty myopic perspective.
What the author’s missing is that innovation can be found anywhere. And the fact that one innovation creates more jobs than another is pretty lame criteria for evaluation—especially when you’re comparing a company that’s been around for seven years to companies that have been around in some cases for more than 100 years. And is "job creation" defined only by how many jobs are created at one company?
Another missed point is that all of his examples started out small, and at the time no one could have accurately predicted the impact they would eventually have on employment or society. How many people will Facebook be employing 93 years from now, and what will its influence on our lives will be? It’s anybody’s guess, but much too soon to make value judgments. But we can ask: What’s the potential impact of connecting more than 500 million people? My guess is pretty big.
Is what Cargill’s doing “better” than what Google does because it employs more people? Is feeding people nutritionally better than feeding people unprecedented access to knowledge and information? How about that farmer in Columbia, South America on Facebook with a new “friend” in Columbia, South Carolina, sharing tips on how to improve crop yields? If we multiply such examples by 500,000—what’s the impact on our food supply? Is Mayo Clinic “better” than Apple? It’s, ahem, apples and oranges.
And how about the example of Ford Motor Company? Ford was founded in 1903 and six years later had 1,655 employees, according to its own history book. Facebook was founded in 2004 and seven years later has 2,000 employees (not the 1,700 cited in the feature). It took Ford five years to get one production model off the line; Facebook’s got 500-plus million people online in seven years.
While it may look like I’m sticking up for the flinty Mark Zuckerberg, I’m not. What I am supporting is the right to recognize and appreciate innovation wherever it may occur—and not to judge innovation on limited (self-serving?) criteria. Innovation crosses many domains, and to say that one is more valuable than another because it employs more people, or in one person’s perspective has more influence, is, well, not a very innovative way to look at the world.