Hewlett Packard Labs: Nothing If Not Risky

Exploring the challenges of innovative technology through the lens of The Machine

Of all the buzzwords that the tech and business worlds have embraced in recent years—think “disruption,” “gamification” and countless others—“innovation” might just be the only one that we’ll all still be using, say, 10 years from now. The reason for that is pretty simple. Namely, unlike so many other momentarily hot catchphrases, innovation is an idea that most everyone can quickly grasp. For our chief technology officer Martin Fink, innovation is far more than a mere pursuit: it is the fuel that drives virtually everything Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) strives to build.

In this interview, Martin explains why the words “process” and “innovation” do not belong in the same sentence, the single most significant drawback of the Internet of Things, and why he finds HPE’s creation of a new computing architecture, dubbed The Machine, so thrilling.
 

How does a company the size of Hewlett Packard Enterprise constantly innovate and remain agile in a business environment where so many other large enterprises have stagnated in recent years?


For me, it’s a question of corporate culture. We have a fair number of customers who come and ask us to share our process for innovation—and such a process simply doesn’t exist. I often say that the words “process” and “innovation” do not belong in the same sentence. Our legacy of constant innovation really does spring from the culture of the company, which is chaotic at times, and not top-down. It’s bottom-up, but with a purpose. Here’s the thing, you have to allow innovation to happen, and there is an inherent risk in that. All sorts of people, and companies for that matter, say they like to take risks, but they really only want to take them when there’s an upside. Very few people are comfortable with accepting the downside of risk-taking.

But to address another part of your question, I don’t know that, at the end of the day, size is all that relevant to whether we’re especially innovative and nimble. Or rather, size matters insofar as we have the resources to take on innovation agendas that other companies might struggle with. We have the ability to invest in long-term research in interesting areas that a smaller company just wouldn’t be able to tackle.
 

Innovation itself comes in many shapes and sizes, right? Which perhaps means that larger entities like Hewlett Packard Enterprise are better positioned to pursue innovation in its various guises.


That’s exactly right. Let’s call them categories of innovation. First, there’s a type of innovation that has gotten a lot of press in recent years and that most people know as the Idea Economy. This doesn’t involve technological innovation as much as business-model innovation. The classic example is Uber, which took existing technologies—backend IT systems and mobile phones—and wrote an app to link passengers and drivers. Uber created an interesting business model around that, but the supporting technology is not that earth-shattering. Then there’s software innovation, DevOps and that kind of thing, where the focus is on innovating and deploying products on a larger scale and at a far more rapid pace than before. Cloud software, network function virtualization and the like have enabled that class of innovation.

And then there’s what we might call industrial innovation, which is longer term, more meaningful and more pronounced. I think that’s where you need companies like HPE. We’re able to participate in all of the different types of innovation because in the case of an Uber, for example, we provide some of the information technology that allows it to engage in business model innovation. With software innovation, we can be an enterprise engine. A lot of startups come up with very creative software, but established enterprises struggle with how to absorb it into their world. Hewlett Packard Enterprise has a huge role to play in helping customers leverage that type of innovation. Finally, when it comes to industrial innovation, we contribute by developing new technology in things such as photonics or non-volatile memory, which your average startup can’t produce.
 

Making use of Big Data seems to be on every company’s agenda these days, no matter the industry. Is HPE focusing on how to leverage this endless torrent of information that we’re all collecting and storing on all of our devices?


Data is something you accumulate; knowledge is something you use. We’re in the midst of a phase of accumulating data, with the vague idea that we’ll figure out how to use it later. Do you know the term “dark data?” It’s essentially data that people don’t even know they’ve accumulated. In some ways, the Internet of Things only makes that problem worse because we’re just going to keep collecting a huge amount of data from all of these new appliances, tools and devices, and so much of that data will be repetitive or redundant. So the next round of innovation will include finding ways to use intelligence—or knowledge—in order to make better use of all that information and create better business outcomes. We believe that rather than collecting data in some central place and having it sit there as dark data, we’re better off getting intelligence from the data at its source. In other words, we’re creating ways to process data as it’s being created.
 

You have an awful lot on your plate right now, but is there one project at Labs or elsewhere that gets you especially psyched just thinking about it or working on it every day?


I would say it’s The Machine, and I’d point to that in two contexts. First off is The Machine as an entity, where we have the opportunity to bring a new class of computing to the world. Then there is The Machine and its component parts, because this new computing involves taking component technologies—whether it’s non-volatile memory, photonics, what have you—and applying them to the classical type of computing that we’re all familiar with.

But here’s the thing. Even if The Machine was, in and of itself, the most transformative invention the world has ever seen, it will still take a while for the industry to transition to its platform. In the meantime, I’m as thrilled by the new, groundbreaking components that we’re developing for The Machine as I am about the entity itself. After all, those innovative components have the best chance of seeing the light of day in the near-term, and we'll see them in the marketplace and applied to the sort of computers and other devices we're using right now. And absolutely everything about that prospect gets me excited.