Discontinuous Improvement – Abernathy and Utterback Model

The common innovation process happens in a set frame, following certain rules and ways of thinking. This ‘game played’ by competitors is to innovate by doing what has been done before like product or process innovations or even position and paradigm innovations, but doing it better. In this competition of ‘playing the same game’ some firms manage to do better than others and can gain a competitive advantage through these innovations, but the ‘set of the game’ is accepted and do not change.

Very rare something happens that breaks up this framework and changes how the game is played. This will not happen every day but when this arises the rules and boundaries of a market change rapidly. This will result in upcoming new opportunities and challenge the existing players in their way of working, thinking and doing business.

A discontinues improvement occurs out of a technological and conditions stable market, where is a long period of continuous improvements and variations around a basic product or service. The strategy, before the discontinues improvement was, ‘doing what we do, but better’. When such an innovation happens one or more of the basic conditions like technology, markets, social, regulatory etc. change rapidly. Now the time of ‘doing different’ begins and the ‘rules of the game’ change so the opportunity space for new innovations appears. Such a rapid technology change is happening right now with the development of LED’s in the light market. From the invention of the originally light bulb in the late nineteenth century by Edison and Swan the light market gets more and more restricted by the government. Furthermore the development of the LED light was a major step for the whole market and will influence our daily life in the future. With this upcoming technology new enterprises emerge in the market as well as the inventor Shuji Nakamura with the company Nichia Corporation. This discontinues improvement faces the market dominating companies very hard. Either they adapt to the new light technology or they will lose market share very rapidly.

In the process the underlying ‘rules of the game’ change and a new opportunity space for innovation opens up. ‘Do different’ conditions of this kind occur, for example, when radical change takes place along the technological frontier or when completely new markets emerge. An emerging example of this could be the replacement of the incandescent light bulb originally developed in the late nineteenth century by Edison and Swan (amongst others). This may be replaced by the solid state white light emitting diode technology patented by Nichia Chemical. This technology is 85% more energy efficient, has 16 times the life of a conventional bulb, is brighter, is more flexible in application and is likely to be subject to the scale economies associated with electronic component production.

In their pioneering work on this theme Abernathy and Utterback developed a model describing the pattern in terms of three distinct phases. Initially, under discontinuous conditions, there is what they term a ‘fluid phase’ during which there is high uncertainty along two dimensions:

  1. The target — what will the new configuration be and who will want it?
  2. The technical — how will we harness new technological knowledge to create and deliver this?

No one knows what the ‘right’ configuration of technological means and market needs will be and so there is extensive experimentation (accompanied by many failures) and fast learning by a range of players including many new entrepreneurial businesses.

Discontinuous Improvement - Abernathy and Utterback Model

Gradually these experiments begin to converge around what they call a ‘dominant design’ — something which begins to set up the rules of the game. This represents a convergence around the most popular (importantly not necessarily the most technologically sophisticated or elegant) solution to the emerging configuration. At this point a ‘bandwagon’ begins to roll and innovation options become increasingly channeled around a core set of possibilities. It becomes increasingly difficult to explore outside this space because entrepreneurial interest and the resources which that brings increasingly focus on possibilities within the dominant design corridor.

This can apply to products or processes; in both cases the key characteristics become stabilized and experimentation moves to getting the bugs out and refining the dominant design. For example, the nineteenth-century chemical industry moved from making soda ash (an essential ingredient in making soap, glass and a host of other products) from the earliest days where it was produced by burning vegetable matter through to a sophisticated chemical reaction which was carried out on a batch process (the Leblanc process) which was one of the drivers of the Industrial Revolution. This process dominated for nearly a century but was in turn replaced by a new generation of continuous processes which used electrolytic techniques and which originated in Belgium where they were developed by the Solvay brothers. Moving to the Leblanc process or the Solvay process did not happen overnight; it took decades of work to refine and improve each process, and to fully understand the chemistry and engineering required to get consistent high quality and output.

The same pattern can be seen in products. For example, the original design for a camera is something which goes back to the early nineteenth century and — as a visit to any science museum will show — involved all sorts of ingenious solutions. The dominant design gradually emerged with an architecture which we would recognize — shutter and lens arrangement, focusing principles, back plate for film or plates, etc. But this design was then modified still further — for example, with different lenses, motorized drives, flash technology — and, in the case of George Eastman’s work, to creating a simple and relatively ‘idiot-proof’ model camera (the Box Brownie) which opened up photography to a mass market. More recent development has seen a similar fluid phase around digital imaging devices.

The period in which the dominant design emerges and emphasis shifts to imitation and development around it is termed the ‘transitional phase’ in the Abernathy and Utterback model. Activities move from radical concept development to more focused efforts geared around product differentiation and to delivering it reliably, cheaply, with higher quality, extended functionality, etc.

As the concept matures still further so incremental innovation becomes more significant and emphasis shifts to factors like cost — which means efforts within the industries which grow up around these product areas tend to focus increasingly on rationalization, on scale economies and on process innovation to drive out cost and improve productivity. Product innovation is increasingly about differentiation through customization to meet the particular needs of specific users. Abernathy and Utterback term this the ‘specific phase’.

Finally the stage is set for change — the scope for innovation becomes smaller and smaller whilst outside — for example, in the laboratories and imaginations of research scientists — new possibilities are emerging. Eventually a new technology emerges which has the potential to challenge all the by now well-established rules — and the game is disrupted. In the camera case, for example, this is happening with the advent of digital photography which is having an impact on cameras and the overall service package around how we get, keep and share our photographs. In our chemical case this is happening with biotechnology and the emergence of the possibility of no longer needing giant chemical plants but instead moving to small-scale operations using live organisms genetically engineered to produce what we need.

Although this model originally developed for manufactured products the model also works for services — for example the early days of Internet banking were characterized by a typically fluid phase with many options and models being offered. This gradually moved to a transitional phase, building a dominant design consensus on the package of services offered, the levels and nature of security and privacy support, the interactivity of website, etc. The field has now become mature with much of the competition shifting to marginal issues like relative interest rates.

The pattern can be seen in many studies and its implications for innovation management are important. In particular it helps us understand why established organizations often find it hard to deal with discontinuous change. Organizations build capabilities around a particular trajectory and those who may be strong in the later (specific) phase of an established trajectory often find it hard to move into the new one. (The example of the firms which successfully exploited the transistor in the early 1950s is a good case in point — many were new ventures, sometimes started by enthusiasts in their garage, yet they rose to challenge major players in the electronics industry like Raytheon.) This is partly a consequence of sunk costs and commitments to existing technologies and markets and partly because of psychological and institutional barriers. They may respond but in slow fashion — and they may make the mistake of giving responsibility for the new development to those whose current activities would be threatened by a shift.

Importantly, the ‘fluid’ or ‘ferment’ phase is characterized by co-existence of old and new technologies and by rapid improvements of both. (It is here that the so-called ‘sailing ship’ effect can often be observed, in which a mature technology accelerates in its rate of improvement as a response to a competing new alternative — as was the case with the development of sailing ships in competition with newly emerging steamship technology.

Whilst some research suggests existing incumbents do badly, we need to be careful here. Not all existing players do badly — many of them are able to build on the new trajectory and deploy/leverage their accumulated knowledge, networks, skills and financial assets to enhance their competence through building on the new opportunity.

Equally whilst it is true that new entrants — often small entrepreneurial firms — play a strong role in this early phase we should not forget that we see only the successful players. We need to remember that there is a strong ecological pressure on new entrants which means only the fittest or luckiest survive.

It is more helpful to suggest that there is something about the ways in which innovation is managed under these conditions which poses problems. Good practice of the ‘steady-state’ kind described above is helpful in the mature phase but can actively militate against the entry and success in the fluid phase of a new technology. How do enterprises pick up signals about changes if they take place in areas where they don’t normally do research? How do they understand the needs of a market which doesn’t exist yet but which will shape the eventual package which becomes the dominant design? If they talk to their existing customers the likelihood is that those customers will tend to ask for more of the same, so which new users should they talk to — and how do they find them? The challenge seems to be to develop ways of managing innovation not only under ‘steady-state’ but also under the highly uncertain, rapidly evolving and changing conditions which result from a dislocation or discontinuity. The kinds of organizational behavior needed here will include things like agility, flexibility, the ability to learn fast, the lack of preconceptions about the ways in which things might evolve, etc. — and these are often associated with new small firms. There are ways in which large and established players can also exhibit this kind of behavior but it does often conflict with their normal ways of thinking and working.

Extensive studies have shown the power of shifting technological boundaries in creating and transforming industry structures — for example, in the case of the typewriter, the computer and the automobile. Such transformations happen relatively often — no industry is immune.

Worryingly the source of the technology which destabilizes an industry often comes from outside that industry. So even those large incumbent firms which take time and resources to carry out research to try and stay abreast of developments in their field may find that they are wrong-footed by the entry of something which has been developed in a different field. The massive changes in insurance and financial services which have characterized the shift to online and telephone provision were largely developed by IT professionals often working outside the original industry. In extreme cases we find what is often termed the ‘not invented here’ — NIH — effect, where a firm finds out about a technology but decides against following it up because it does not fit with their perception of the industry or the likely rate and direction of its technological development. Famous examples of this include Kodak’s rejection of the Polaroid process or Western Union’s dismissal of Bell’s telephone invention. In a famous memo dated 1876 the board commented, ‘this ‘telephone” has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.’

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