Randall Stross made the conjecture yesterday in the New York Times that there is an “invisible law that makes it impossible for a company in the computer business to enjoy prominence that spans two technological eras.” He points out that the crown changed hands every 10-20 years going from IBM to Lotus to Microsoft to Google. The latest was a transition from the personal computing era to the online era. Most firms are built on a single insight and are not able to also be the source of a second insight of the same magnitude that would enable them to maintain the crown.
Just as some suggest that your taste in fashion freezes once you have kids, perhaps the ability for an organization to innovate freezes once it has birthed its “killer application.” Or, perhaps it is just up to each generation to have their breakthrough, and each organization is forever linked to the generation of its founders.
Volunteerism and innovation
As I read Stross’ article, I wondered if this “single-era conjecture” applies only to technology companies or if it can be applied to other sectors that are driven by innovation. The social sector, for example, is largely driven by innovation. As I look at the field of volunteerism, I see a similar trend.
It started with the creation of Volunteer Centers that had the historic insight that volunteering needs to be coordinated at a regional level so that would-be volunteers and nonprofits had a destination to connect. This was coordinated at a national level by Bush’s Points of Light Foundation.
Then emerged the Hands on Network (AKA Cares Network) which had the insight that with Generation X there was a need for not only a connection point, but structured volunteer activities based on the lifestyle of a busy and demanding generation.
The online era brought Volunteer Match, an organization with the insight that the Volunteer Center value proposition could be made much more cost effective and scalable by moving it online.
As is often the case with early innovators who are no longer defining the innovation curve, the former two organizations have merged to become more cost effective and relevant in a quickly evolving market place much as Lotus and IBM did many years back. They will continue to struggle to generate innovation given the operational legacy they must manage and their founding on core insights that are no longer at the cutting edge of market place demand. As with most post-innovation organizations, they are now market-driven and not insight driven. This is an important role in the marketplace and will likely keep them in an important role for years to come.
There is no clear next prominent player to take the crown. Volunteer Match, the most recent innovator, is searching for its second insight and starting to become more market driven than innovation driven.
Most of the exciting new innovation I see is niche-focused and based on insights about a specific demographic:
- One Brick had the insight that singles want a way to volunteer that explicitly incorporates a social aspect so they can meet new people;
- Civic Ventures had the insight that Boomers need custom programs to meet their needs going into retirement;
- The Taproot Foundation had the insight that we need to add volunteer skills into the mix to harness a lot of the potential value.
It is unlikely that any of these insights will generate a new crown, and the programs of each are already nearly 10 years old. These are niche insights that are profound, but perhaps not large enough to be the next “Google” of volunteerism.
The Google in the field of volunteerism will be the organization that can determine on a national scale how to harness volunteerism towards a specific and measurable end that changes the nature of core social issues like education and the environment. It will likely do this based on a new insight that is based on the learning from previous innovators, but it will make an assumption that predecessors have not yet imagined that will make the impossible possible.
There is now talk of this goal across the country, but I have not seen the key insight that will make it work yet. It is the billion dollar question in the field.