At an event held for editors at the recently concluded NIWeek, innovation was the topic of discussion. On the firing line were National Instruments executives James Truchard, Jeff Kodosky, Mike Santori, and Tim Dehne. When asked about innovation, Truchard made the connection between innovation and quality. Essentially, innovation brings a product, such as LabVIEW, to life. The ability to continuously innovate ensures product quality over the long term.
LabVIEW 8.5, released on the first day of the show, is an example. In a time when traditional programming languages are struggling with the new breed of multi-core processors, this latest version has the uncanny ability to program these processors in a simplified, intuitive way.
Santori pointed out that companies need to have a culture of innovation to innovate. Employees need to know that new ideas are welcome. According to Santori, National Instruments not only encourages innovation, it also seeks out the innovators in its midst. How do you recognize an innovator? These people keep coming up with ideas that either turn into great new products or make good products better.
When questioned whether friction might arise when an innovator is identified among a group of employees, Santori went back to culture. If you want to innovate as a company (and who doesn't?), you need a culture of innovation. If you have one, employees will expect some of their co-workers to be identified as innovators and will accept it.
Who are the Innovators?
When asked for an example of an innovator, Kodosky, the father of LabVIEW, said he was one and admitted that he was terrible when it came to operations. Wouldn't it have been a shame if National Instruments hadn't recognized him as an innovator and instead focused on his inability to run the operation?
So which companies are leading innovators? Apple was the panel's most common response. It would have been my answer too, not just because of the hot-selling iPhone, but also because of how Steve Jobs figured out years ago that his company would do better selling music players than computers. When I first saw the original iPod advertised on a huge billboard atop a building in Times Square, New York, I thought Jobs had lost his mind. I guess I can't tell an innovator when I see one.
Throughout the discussion, the panel recommended books on innovation. The first one mentioned was aptly titled First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. Another was Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore. It seems to be more of a marketing book, but according to Amazon.com, people who "bought this item also bought" The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution, both by Clayton M. Christensen. The panel also recommended The Elegant Solution: Toyota's Formula for Mastering Innovation by Matthew E. May.
Not only does National Instruments excel at innovation, its customers do, too. Developed by Sanarus Medical, the Visica 2 Treatment System cryogenically freezes benign breast tumors. Using a probe inserted into a small nick in the patient's skin, the device can grow an ice ball that engulfs the tumor and kills it. The prototype was built using NI's CompactRIO platform and LabVIEW.
Next, 24-year-old Ambient CEO Michael Callahan demonstrated the Audeo system, which captures neurological information from the brain and turns the signals into speech or into control signals that can move, for example, a motorized wheelchair. The disabled simply intend to communicate words like "go," "stop," or "turn left," and the wheelchair responds. Callahan used LabVIEW to create the computer interface to the human nervous system via sophisticated signal processing algorithms.
Finally, Ray Almgren, vice president in charge of academic relations, introduced 11-year-old Samuel Majors at NIWeek's final keynote address. Samuel was trying to automate his model train set, but he found that programming languages such as Visual Basic just weren't for him. Instead, he (or maybe his dad, who was also on stage) purchased LabVIEW at the student price of $79.95. Almgren assured me later that it wasn't a watered-down version of the product.
I've always felt that kids nowadays don't have programming opportunities like they had years ago with the Apple II or Commodore 64 computers, which had BASIC built in. But for a very reasonable price, you can give a kid the opportunity to do some neat programming and maybe some innovative work as well.