Sic transit innovation – and the broader role of intangibles

Innovation needs to be a verb. Unfortunately, most people think of it as a noun. Innovation is a thing, an outcome. As Webster’s defines it: a new idea, method or device. But we also need to think of innovation as a process.
Case in point is the recent history of Motorola. As everyone now recognizes, the proposed takeover of Motorola Mobility by Google is based on access to the Motorola patent portfolio. The acquisition has little to do with Motorola’s hardware technology. In fact, as a story in today’s New York Times (“Motorola’s Identity Crisis”) points out, Google may have difficulties figuring out what to do with Motorola’s hardware activities. Google already has close relations with other hardware manufacturers, such as Samsung and HTC. Getting into the hardware business could disrupt those relationship.
This is far cry from Motorola’s reputation as an innovative leader. Motorola pioneered wireless communications, starting with the first “carphone” (a radiotelephone) in 1946 to the first commercial cellular phone (the DynaTAC 8000X) to the breakthrough flip phone StarTAC and the hot selling RAZR. Motorola also led in process technologies in the late 1980 with the development of the Six Sigma quality improvement program.
The acquisition could be a huge positive step for Google if it can find a way to harness the innovation processes in Motorola. Controlling the previous innovations (noun) in the form of the patents is far different from exploiting innovation (verb) capacity latent in the Motorola Mobility organization. That capacity in embedded in a variety of intangibles — from the innovation tradition and culture to the skilled workforce.
On the other hand, maybe all that changed with the split of the company last year into Motorola Mobility and Motorola Solutions. It could be that all that innovation capacity now resides in Motorola Solutions. If so, then Google has only bought itself some innovation-as-a-noun. Innovation-as-a-verb may continue somewhere else.

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