Fostering consistent innovation, experts say, requires a balance of management systems and inspirational leadership. At Apple, the inspiration wellspring is the megawatt personality of its leader, Mr. Jobs, and its ability to make consumer products that delight millions of people.
At I.B.M., the inspiration engine is more subtle and conceptual. In late 2008, Mr. Palmisano and his team settled on a theme: the deployment of scientific research and technology to tackle big challenges for business and society in fields like energy, pollution, transportation and health care. And the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its "Smarter Planet" advertising campaign.
"Sure, it's marketing, but it's also a big idea that explains the company's mission to the world and to its employees," says John Kao, an innovation consultant to governments and business.
A striking difference between the companies, experts say, is in their approach to research. I.B.M. has laboratories around the world, spends $6 billion a year on research and development, and generates more patents a year than any other company. Five I.B.M. scientists have won Nobel prizes; the company's researchers attend scientific conferences, publish papers and have made fundamental advances in computing, materials science and mathematics.
Apple, by contrast, focuses only on product innovation, not scientific invention. "Apple does research insofar as it advances their laser-focused product aspirations," observes Michael Hawley, a computer scientist who worked for Mr. Jobs at NeXT, a pioneering but commercially unsuccessful computer company.
At Apple, the emphasis is not on the basic science of traditional research but on the "behavioral science" of the user experience, explained a former Apple manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he still had ties to the company.
APPLE has technical experts who constantly scout new commercial technologies, he said; they work with suppliers, often co-inventing down to the chip level. Then prototypes and initial products are produced, with constant refinements. They are shown not to focus groups or to other outsiders, but only to Mr. Jobs and his lieutenants. For example, three iPhone prototypes were completed over the course of a year. The first two were tossed out, the third passed muster, and the product shipped in June 2007, the former manager said.
"That is the rocket science -- the product," he said.
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