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What Business Are You In?

| On 08, Jul 2008

Jack Hipple

With my activities in TRIZ, I am constantly thinking about function rather than jargon or business description. What function does my product allow someone to do? Not what do I sell them or what do they need. The function of the automobile is to move someone from place A to place B—or is it to allow someone to meet with someone? The function of a letter is to write to someone—or is it to request something, communicate something? The function of an insurance policy is to pay bills—or is it to provide piece of mind and security? The function of a web site is to share information—or is it a vehicle to sell advertising?

It’s important that as we consider innovation in the context of our businesses that we think hard about what business we are truly in. In a Fortune article last year (July 9, 2007, p69), a senior executive at Xerox was interviewed about the company’s future with the backdrop of its stock price being virtually unchanged if you go back 15 years and only doubling in 20 years when the S&P 500 increased by a factor of 8. The interview focused quite a bit on the “vision” for the company. A quote from this interview, in response to the question, “What is your vision?” was this: “It’s helping our customers deal with their document-intensive processes. That means making sure they have the INFORMATION (my emphasis) they need where they need it, with the history and the context of the information they need…I want the document to be smart enough so that I don’t need to worry about it”. Wow, are we making progress from a copier company! Information, smart (not copied) documents.

The interview went on to describe a smart document in the legal profession as one that would be able to searched in a legal discovery process via a tool they call Intelligent redaction. Those of you with TRIZ in your DNA will recognize this as a complicated way of saying that the “document identifies itself, using the resources already present”. In the legal area, where we still have a propensity for paper documentation, this is a big step forward, but what if Xerox’s business is totally “information” and not paper or copies in any way? What should they do? How about mass customization of information? They are making a move in this direction by working with magazines to customize subscriptions, but why not mass customize (I only get the type of articles I want on line, NO paper, my price is proportional to number of articles I actually read or download and print, the advertising and coupons are specific to me or my geographic area) INFORMATION, not documents. Has Xerox purchased an on line information storage company? It’s hard for a company like Xerox to walk away from paper, isn’t it?

What business are you in which hasn’t been thought of in terms of its functionality, rather than what it sells? What could replace the function you are performing? Who could you acquire that would improve the functionality of what you provide? (That’s what Xerox did when purchasing Amici, which had the e-discovery technology for lawyers—notice that they still bought someone associated with paper). Think real hard about this. What is the functionality (not stuff) that you provide? How else could it be done? Could you do it? Should you buy someone who can? How could someone achieve the function of what you supply without your “stuff”? Figure it out before it’s too late.