Imitation Isn't Just The Sincerest Form Of Flattery; It Can Be An Important Business Strategy
from the if-done-right dept
The article mentions -- as we've pointed out for years -- that for all of Apple's success, it's really mostly been good at taking existing ideas and packaging them up nicely. But that's incredibly valuable. There's very little that's new in the iPhone or the iPad -- but the way they're put together and the way they're sold is what has made them a success and made them so valuable. It highlights the value of the process of taking ideas and making them useful, rather than just assuming that the idea is the most important part.
As a part of that, the article highlights how the common argument against copying is effectively a myth. The idea that if you have a good idea some big company will just come along and copy it, rarely works:
That means when companies copy they often do it clumsily. Shenkar offers the example of the legacy airlines in the United States and their response to the low-cost threat of Southwest Airlines. Most set up copycat airlines of their own: United with TED, Continental with CALite, Delta with Song. All quickly failed.Indeed. We've pointed out this kind of "cargo cult copying" in the past as well. Copying is not nearly as "easy" as some make it out to be, because those doing the "copying" often are only copying the superficial aspects, without recognizing the underlying reasons why something works. It's why IBM failed at copying Microsoft years ago. It's why Microsoft failed at copying Google. They tried to directly imitate on the surface, rather than understanding the underlying aspects of what's happening.
The problem, Shenkar argues, is that in their scramble to copy Southwest, the bigger airlines failed to see the ways that central pillars of Southwest's strategy -- lower pay, short point-to-point flights, a fleet of identical smaller planes -- were incompatible with the union contracts, hub-and-spoke route structures, and larger craft the traditional carriers were saddled with.
That's why copying, by itself, isn't as "dangerous" as some make it out to be. And, in fact, it's quite beneficial in many cases. And, it turns out that this hatred of imitation is a rather recent phenomenon:
Shenkar traces our innovation fetish back to the late 18th century. Before that -- for most of Western history, in other words -- copying was valued just as highly as creation, and sometimes more. "In the Roman Empire, where imitation was used to align the diverse cultures and institutions of the far-flung empire under a single umbrella, it served as the official pedagogy," he writes in his book. Centuries later, Adam Smith wrote that imitation should be given "the status of a creative art." But the Romantic Age, with its celebration of the sui generis and the solitary genius -- philosophers like Rousseau, poets like Shelley, and scientist-inventors like Humphry Davy -- began to change that. Copying came to be seen as disreputable, as a refuge for the unimaginative.The book sounds great. It points out that there are benefits to allowing copying -- since it allows for more actual innovation in the form of taking what others have done and improving on it, while pointing out that pure copying usually isn't enough to be effective. In other words: allowing copying is good because it drives innovation, but the actual practice of innovation goes beyond just a straight copy. So we shouldn't be so against copying at all. We should be encouraging smart copying that drives innovation forward.