Category Archives: Theory

Power to the user: how innovation puts technology in the hands of the users

One of the characteristics of innovation is to simplify and make more accessible technologies that previously required experts to handle them. Pregnancy tests illustrate this phenomenon: while in the 60s it was necessary to visit a doctor to perform such a test, it can now be performed by buying a $5 kit in a pharmacy. The change for a given technology is therefore translated by two factors: a reduction in costs and simplification. In other words, because the technology becomes cheaper and easier to use, experts are less and less needed for a given problem to solve. Indeed, those pregnancy tests are more and more bought online, thus removing the need for the pharmacist. In 50 years, solving this problem have moved from the doctor to the pharmacist, then from the pharmacist to the user.

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Nespresso: victim of a low-end disruption?

Interestingly, the posts on Nespresso are among the most popular on this blog. Every time I write about this product, audience shoots up, so why not continue… especially given that there is an interesting news with the launch of Nespresso compatible capsules by a new company called Ethical Coffee Company (ECC).

It is well known that Nespresso’s business model is mostly based on selling capsules on which Nestlé is able to make a very high margin. This margin is significantly higher than for the traditional filter coffee, Nestlé’s main business. This is in fact the same model as that of ink jet printer manufacturers: you buy a printer at a very low price; it usually barely covers the cost of the printer. The manufacturer makes its margin not on the printer, but on the cartridges, which are (relatively) very expensive.  This model comes from the razor and the blades model invented by Gillette. This model is not without benefits for some users, in particular for those who have limited needs in terms of quantities. In that case, the high relative cost for one page matters less than the low absolute one. What is interesting in the case of Nespresso is that Nestlé has been able to position the product in the premium segment, so they are able to sell the machines at a high price as well, thus having it both ways…

This positioning helped fuel the success of the product and drove its exceptional profitability. It was reinforced by the creation of the Nespresso Club, adding a sense of exclusivity, and the use of actor George Clooney in the ads. In addition, the Club provides valuable customer information for Nestlé, another innovation for a company that had until then always sold only through distribution channels.

Of course, the idea of a high-quality coffee at home quickly attracted competitors such as Senseo, a partnership between coffee house Douwe-Egberts and home appliance manufacturer Philips, or Tassimo. However, despite their success, and quite unlike what Pr Clayton Christensen would predict, these lower end competitors have not been able to really to “go up” and threaten Nespresso’s position in the higher end of the segment.

This could change thanks to the entry of a new type of competitor having a different strategy: Ethical Coffee Company (ECC). ECC’s idea is quite simply to create capsules that are compatible with Nespresso machines, yet cheaper. This is a strategy that has already been successful for printers and that manufacturers were not able to successfully counter. ECC, which like Nestlé is based out of Switzerland, assures that they have found a way not to violate Nespresso’s patents and produce perfectly legal compatible capsules. ECC’s threat should be taken seriously by Nestlé because its founder is no other than Jean-Paul Gaillard, the man who successfully launched… Nespresso back in the early 1990s. Gaillard is the manager called “Yannick Lang” in the infamous and controversial Nespresso case study from IMD written by Joyce Miller and Kamran Kashani. In addition, ECC has raised €20 million in private capital and is already in production.

ECC’s capsules are legally compatible with Nespresso machines, but 20% cheaper. In addition, they can be completely recycled, a very important point as the use of aluminum capsules by Nestlé has long been criticized by environmentalists. Each Nespresso user has probably experienced a growing sense of unease when throwing away the capsules. Lately, Nestlé has undertaken a recycling program but the way it is organized does not seem to be environmentally friendly.

What can Nestlé do? Moving “downwards” is difficult for two reasons. First, because the success of Senseo and Tassimo in the mid-range market means competition is solidly present, with big brands that have strong experience of the business and the distribution network, and for which the segment is core. So expect strong resistance here. Second, because ECC’s entry will quite likely successfully occupy the “value” segment of the capsule market. Third, because it is always difficult for a firm to move downwards, regardless of the competition: margins are lower but the cost base is the same, a sure crash. This would mean hurting the brand, a key issue as the brand, more than the quality of the coffee, is what drives Nespresso’s success since the beginning. It is difficult to imagine Nestlé introducing “value” (ie low end) coffee machines or selling the capsules in supermarkets (which would instantly mean losing 25% of the margin), sitting next to Tassimo’s.

The question is whether Nespresso’s positioning can be sustained. One can certainly expect a “Clooney fatigue”, not to mention the risk, shown recently by Tiger Woods, of associating a brand with a star who is also a human being, and as such subject to image problems. Despite all the talk about experience, Club exclusivity, and choice of over dozens of coffee types, what customers want is a nice cup of coffee, and too much complexity risk turning them off. Even a visit to a Nespresso shop can be an unpleasant experience when facing the snobbery of the clerks. Last time I went there, I felt like a peasant visiting the castle.

Can Nestlé move upwards? One could imagine Nestlé introducing diamond plated Nespresso machines at €1,000 and partnering with some luxury house. Despite the fact that times of economic recession are usually not appropriate for such positioning, this would smell classic “retreat in the high-value segments”, giving away lower segments to the competition, and putting itself into a corner eventually, something that GM has experienced with SUVs.

Clearly, Nestlé seems concerned. The Swiss firm recently sued a French Web site comparing prices for “disparagement” because the site had contended that Nespresso’s capsules where expensive and environmentally unfriendly. This is surprising because these are two well recognized facts. Nespresso is clearly positioned in the high-end of the market and Nestlé gets good margins on it. This is not a crime and nothing to be ashamed about, simply a positioning that has help fuel Nespresso’s success. Similarly, the environmental unfriendliness is still very common in manufacturing, and Nestlé has made efforts recently to address this question, albeit insufficiently. The trial seems to reflect more on Nestlé’s disarray and lack of strategic clue than anything else. Let’s hope the company will find better ways to deal with its strategic problem. ECC is now sold in France through the Casino supermarket chain. Let the consumers decide…

My previous post on the Nespresso innovation story here.

Note: I no longer update this blog. Instead, I am now writing a blog with a slightly different focus with my colleague Milo Jones on geopolitics, strategy, disruptions, and intelligence. Find it here: http://silberzahnjones.com.

The loss of creative capacity as a cause of organizational decline

I was recently invited to give a keynote speech at the 3rd Journées Georges Doriot, an annual academic and practitioners’ conference organized to honor the great inventor of venture capital, and it seemed to me that the topic of this year – Intrapreneurship- was ideal to test an idea that I had had for some time, that of applying the thesis of Arnold Toynbee on the decline of civilizations to the world of organizations.

Toynbee is the author of “A study in history“, the landmark book on the history of civilizations. The book comprises 6,000 pages, no less. Fortunately, a professor decided to write an abridged version, which allows normal people like you and me to grasp the virtuosity and knowledge of Toynbee for only… 1,200 pages in two volumes. What does Toynbee write? According to him, a civilization grows when its elite is creative enough to attract inside and outside constituents. The civilization breaks down when the elite gives way to, or transforms itself into, a dominant minority. When this happens, the driver of the civilization becomes control, not attraction, and its unity ends.

Interestingly, Toynbee observes that the consequences of the breakdown are not felt immediately. The civilization can continue to exist and keep a momentum if only because the logic of control brings an overall efficiency in its working. To summarize, the three key points of Toynbee’s thesis are:

  1. The source of breakdown is the loss of the creative capacity of the elite;
  2. The consequences of the breakdown are not felt immediately;
  3. When losing its creative capacity, the elite gives way to a dominant minority working on a logic of control.

It is tempting to try to apply Toynbee’s thesis to the corporate environment. In doing so, we can define the creative capacity as the ability to successfully create and introduce new products and services (renew its engine of growth). We can define growth in terms of overall economic performance.

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Framing: a key concept in the management of uncertainty and disruptions

The fog of war, a long 2003 interview of Robert S McNamara, shows that how one frames an issue has an influence on on how a question can be solved. As soon as they got engaged in Vietnam, the US presented the conflict as a fight between freedom and communism. This happened in the late fifties, after China had become communist and right after the Korean war, in a context in which the communist world seemed to progress inexorably. The domino theory, introduced by the Republican US president  Eisenhower in 1954, stated that once a country fell and became communist, neighboring countries also would. Hence it became crucial to defend any country facing a communist insurgency. As David Halberstam mentions in his book “The best and the brightest”, the US national context also played a role later in the Vietnam process: Harry Truman, Eisenhower’s Democratic predecessor, was accused during the cold war to have “lost” China in 1949 and to have been weak against the communists, particularly during the Mccarthyst period. A longstanding reputation of “Democratic weakness” persists to this day as a result. In the early 60s, the democrats were still traumatized by these accusations that were systematically used by their Republican adversaries. This is the initial cognitive frame with which the Vietnam question was analyzed by President Kennedy’s administration. Right from the beginning then, the administration was prisoner, without being aware of it, from a frame that was in effect imposed by their adversaries. Despite their doubts and mounting skepticism, they would remain unable, right until the very end, to get rid of it.

In the interview, McNamara tells the story of his encounter with his former enemies during his 1995 visit to Vietnam. Much to his surprise, he realizes then that Vietnamese were first and foremost nationalists before being communists. Hence, that the conflict could in fact be framed as a nationalistic fight for union and independence, something Americans could actually have been sympathetic to. He also realizes that there is nothing that the Vietnamese dislike more than the Chinese, thus showing the fallacy of the fear of a great Chinese plot in South-East Asia, and more generally of that of a grand union of communist countries against the western world. A knowledge that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger will use to their advantage in their opening to China to counter the Soviet Union.

Framing the conflict in terms of a moral fight of good versus evil and asserting the inevitability of the domino theory also raised the stake of the conflict considerably for the US, making it more difficult to withdraw and limiting their margin for maneuver. It’s difficult to give up when the freedom of the world is supposedly at stake, but much easier when it’s framed as a civil war in a distant country.

The concept of frame of course also applies to the corporation. It is especially important in periods of uncertainty and turbulence caused by disruptions. Disruptions bring about profound change that require corporations to review the way they perceive and analyze their environment. Any corporation use a frame that is the result of past experience and of what the corporation has learned about its successes and failures. The more the corporation has been successful, usually the stronger the frame and the more difficult to change. For instance, raised in technological excellence, telecom operators denied the significance of internet telephony on account that it was not working well. GM discounted the importance of the Japanese cars in the seventies from the height of its market share. Kodak reacted to the emergence of digital photography by inventing a… digital film (APS) simply because the company was unable to imagine a world without films, and as a result tried to ‘cram’ the new technology into the old, to use Clayton Christensen’s expression. More recently, music majors reacted to peer to peer by framing it exclusively as acts of piracy, and as a result limiting their action to the legal option, instead of taking an open view on the undermining by the Internet of their very reason to exist on the marketplace.

More generally, enabling an organization to change with its environment requires changing its frame. The question, of course, is how to define the new frame and how to adopt it. Some researchers such as Sarah Kaplan show that this can be achieved by organizing ‘framing contests’ between different possible frames within the organization. The chosen frame will be the result of this contest, the process of which creates the conditions for the frame to be properly adopted and used. See a previous post I wrote on Framing here.

Nespresso: when the simplicity of the product hides the complexity of the innovation process

One of my favorite questions when I teach innovation is to ask participants how long it took for Nestlé to succeed with their Nespresso coffee machine. So what’s your answer? One year? Five year? Well no. The answer is 21 years! Based on a technology licensed from the Battelle Institute by Nestlé in… 1974, Nespresso only became profitable in 1995 after much ups and downs. 21 years were needed to make a success of the Nespresso innovation.

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Robert Burgelman conference at Vlerick: cross-boundary disrupters

Robert Burgelman was at Vlerick Management School on February 5th for a conference on cross boundary disrupters, ie existing firms entering industry by disrupting its prevailing rules. He started by summarizing his work on intrapreneurship and more generally his methodology. Initially, his PhD was about communication between the R&D and marketing departments. He realized, however, that there were research projects that did not fit the company’s strategy. Put otherwise, whereas Chandler was predicting that structure would follow strategy, here was a case where structure preceded strategy. When the project was eventually approved by top management, strategy was modified as a result, which meant that strategy had followed structure.

Hence Burgelman’s model of intrapreneurship identified two types of projects: those resulting from the official strategy, and those resulting from the autonomous action of middle management sometimes in opposition to the official strategy. The model was further developed when combined with the work of Hannan and Freeman on the ecology of organizations in the 1970-1980s. According to this view, industries evolve through a mechanism of variation (creation of diversity), selection, and retention (reduction of diversity through mortality). Applying this model from the industry to the inside of an organization, Burgelman showed how a firm could manage this ecology of projects, the basis for maintaining an innovation edge. Thanks to this, the firm is not dependent on the official strategy and preserve the ability to create real options on different strategies.

Then Burgelman moved on to the main topic of the conference. Often, disruptions in an industry are described as being originated by entrepreneurial firms. However, cases show that startups are not often successful in their efforts and are successfully fended off by incumbents. However, their efforts do not go unnoticed and open the way for existing firm in other, adjacent industries, which “recognize” the opportunity and attempt a disruption, but from a much stronger base. The typical case in point is Apple with the iPod. Apple’s growth was constrained in the PC segment, but the firm could leverage its expertise in software and design to succeed where Napster had failed after the music industry’s lawsuits. Burgelman tried to formalize the conditions under which a cross-boundary disruption can be successful: an initial attack by a relatively weak startup fails, but still manages to undermine the incumbents; a stagnant existing industry stuck in business models undermined by a disruptive technology; and a potential new entrant limited in its growth but having relevant assets that can be exploited to cross the boundary.

Still in the case of Apple,the theory does not apply so well to the iPhone: it cannot be said that mobile telephony was stagnant with irrelevant business models and slow moving industry participants. Indeed, if the iPhone has been very successful, it can hardly be said that Apple changed the rules as it did in the music indusry where it essentially set the price for digitized music. Proof that this is an area where predictions are difficult, Burgelman, in his Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal article on the topic was skeptical about the chances of success for Apple, observing that Microsoft was better positioned and, with 10% of the smartphone market, already ahead. Since then, Apple has been able to gain a significant market share and Microsoft presence in mobile phones has all but evaporated even though a come back is in preparation at the time of writing. Another example of potential disruption in a completely different industry was given by Burgelman with Wal-Mart possibly moving in the low-end health-care provision. This is a question that Christensen has explored in the innovator’s prescription, his latest book on disruptions in the US healthcare system.

Innovation is first and foremost about reducing costs

It is often assumed that innovation is about bringing new offerings or methods to the market. In business, there would be a noble side, that of innovation, and a less noble one, that of managing operations. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the most fundamental aspects of the free market system lies in its ability to reduce costs, and therefore prices.

In his monumental piece "Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy", still an essential read sixty years later, Schumpeter explains that innovation is not the capitalist system's distinguishing feature: other civilizations or political systems have been innovative in sime areas as well (think of space technologies in the former USSR or Law in ancient Rome). The real distinguishing feature of the system is its inherent ability to democratize innovation by making available new products to the masses. This is achieved both through its ability to organize efficiently but also and more importantly through the ability to decrease costs. In other words, the symbol of capitalism and innovation is not so much the start-up as Wal-Mart, the low-cost supermarket that saves Americans' mostly low-income customers about $50 billion a year. For these customers who struggle to make ends meet, it's something.

Schumpeter thus summarized the argument:"The capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production which unavoidably also means production for the masses… It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort. . . . the capitalist process, not by coincidence but by virtue of its mechanism, progressively raises the standard of life of the masses." (source)

Unlike what The Economist explains in their must-read article "The Silence of the Mammon", I don't think defending this system in the name of this formidable wealth creation and affordability is defensive or smacks appeasement. On the contrary, it's a perfectly valid argument as it does not pretend to bestow other responsibilities to this system than it is supposed to have.