Microsoft Corp. has been striving to capture the imagination of consumers as it loses market share in browsers and software for smartphones after ceding the initial edge it had in Internet search and email services to rivals such as Google Inc.
One part of Microsoft’s strategy has been to encourage grass-roots-level innovation among its workforce to develop products and allow employees to work on ideas they are keen on.
As director of incubations at Washington-based Microsoft, Matt Hempey has a significant role to play in the effort. Hempey, who was recently in Hyderabad to attend the Garage Science Fair, an event where Microsoft employees showcase their work, is developing a variety of seed-stage technology initiatives with a focus on cloud computing, where his role is to understand where the industry is headed and help point Microsoft in that direction.
Hempey sees a greater role for grass-roots innovation in Microsoft’s next generation offerings such as Windows Azure and Windows Phone 7.
In an interview, he outlined Microsoft’s innovation strategy and explained the concept of the Garage, a forum where developers and engineers come together to work on product and service ideas and ways to execute and market them. Edited excerpts:
On Microsoft’s incubation initiative:
The company over the last five years has developed this concept called the Garage, which is a very loose, company-wide community of grassroots innovators. The idea behind the Garage is the principle that anybody can be a Garage member and anyone can show up and work on a Garage project. There are a few things that we really emphasize. One of them is that grass-roots innovation is based on experimentation. It’s about going out and seeing if an idea works. Ideas plus execution, or plus data, gets you something that can actually provide business value. There are tons of people who are sharing ideas all over the company. Which ideas are those that you take and which do you not take, especially when you are a product manager for a team and you are looking at all sorts of data about your customers? Garage gives them a method of going and prototyping that idea, of trying it out... If you got an idea, come and build it. Garage is about doers, not talkers! Go out and build that idea you have been talking about. Show it to people and get some feedback on it.
On recognizing ideas that work:
That actually is at the heart of the problem... What we find is that when we are just talking about ideas, there are often times when value judgements can become very arbitrary— someone’s opinion versus someone else’s opinion, you don’t have the data to really make an informed judgement. When you have the culture of experimentation, you can very clearly see when you speak because you are actually putting something to test. It might be, for instance, we have a service that is called Windows Azure Sandbox (that is) a way for people to go on the cloud and experiment. And, what we see is that there are people trying things out on Windows Azure cloud service platform that enable their individual teams to move faster to the cloud—do something in new ways using the cloud. In future, if we see breakthrough ideas that catch the attention of one of our senior executives and they see something really valuable in that—that makes it to sort of a product or feature level kind of thing...
On employees’ participation:
...we see a very large level of activity and interest in these projects. It’s not just a business value kind of situation. It’s a great way especially for employees beginning their careers who have more time on their hands, and yet have a lot of commitment...to explore the kind of technologies they may not be working on everyday. So, we see a lot of informal participation across the company. I would say the percentage is much higher here in India. Why that’s the case, I wouldn’t venture a guess, but I would say that the spirit of innovation is very alive in Hyderabad. That’s one reason why I spend a lot of time over here trying to foster innovation because this is the place where there is an unusual degree of enthusiasm for doing things at the grass-roots level.
On technologies that interest Garage participants:
The natural user interface for mobile is by far the biggest. There’s spirit of innovation around Kinect and the fact that we have an SDK (software development kit) out there for developers, their work now is a real source of enthusiasm. There’s also a ton of enthusiasm around Windows Phone 7 development. We have a special programme (for) building the phone applications and uploading them to the marketplace themselves. A lot of projects today are mobile applications. I think those two...are really what get people excited these days.
On patents of products that emerge from the initiative:
The Garage isn’t about people going and creating their own business....Anything that is developed as part of the science fair is intellectual property that is just like any other work that goes on in our team. In our teams, we are paid for that specifically to be prioritized as part of the data. Here the only difference being ‘hey you come up with the ideas’... The idea is innovation that comes out of the science fair, that comes out of the work that goes on here, will make its way into the channels by which Microsoft makes money. So, whether that is data centre optimization or a really cool interface or a new application for Windows Phone 7 ...those are all different opportunities for keying in business value.
When people are participating in the Garage, they are participating for Microsoft. All the intellectual property still belongs to Microsoft except in cases like our Windows Phone 7 developer programme that actually has a specific model for that.
On role of innovation in Microsoft’s business strategy, Google’s grassroots development initiative:
I don’t want to speak to you about the competitors directly because I am not somebody who prepares their programmes. I want to say that innovation is a hugely important thing to Microsoft, and so making sure that each employee feels empowered here— when they come here they see an environment that allows them the opportunity to contribute in the specific areas they are working in right now... I think our approach to this grass-roots innovation is about making sure people are contributing the way they want to. You have a lot of people that have come in, who have a lot of energy, and when they want to contribute, they are just looking for a way, and they don’t find a structure and they don’t find the network to be able to do that, that’s when frustration kicks in. We try our best through things like the Garage, through things like the Windows Azure Sandbox to give them the avenues to make a difference.
Good ideas can come from anywhere and ideas matter a great deal. Our poster says Innovation = Ideas + Execution. It isn’t just about your ideas; it’s about ideas and empowerment of being able to execute them that really makes the innovation.