Systematic problem solving

James Todhunter of Invention Machine shares how systematic methods for problem solving and knowledge management can help enterprises sustain innovation.

Interview conducted by Vinod Baya and Bo Parker
Photo: Bill Hessler

James Todhunter is the CTO of Invention Machine Corporation, where he is responsible for the company’s technology strategy and execution. A seasoned innovator and inventor, Todhunter works on the front line of innovation and has more than 30 years of experience in software technology and management.

In this interview, James Todhunter details how the Invention Machine Goldfire software blends innovation methods and semantic knowledge capabilities to provide problem-solving support during the innovation process.

PwC: Could you please describe your company a little bit as well as the core product and the challenge it solves for your customers?

JT: Absolutely. Invention Machine helps Global 5000 manufacturing companies drive sustainable innovation. While most companies profess their commitment to continuous innovation, very few of them know how to go about actualizing innovation in a consistent, repeatable way. Invention Machine gives companies a road map to high-performance innovation— first identifying an organization’s critical innovation initiatives and communities, and then integrating innovation best practices and infrastructure to make innovation a sustainable engine for value creation.

Our innovation intelligence platform, Invention Machine Goldfire, combines a number of proven innovation methodologies with very rich global content relative to our clients’ lines of business in general technology and science. We also have patented semantic technology for research and high-precision concept identification. These various elements of Goldfire help companies drive their innovation initiatives in a number of ways. For example, Dutch Royal Shell accelerated its entry into new energy markets by using Goldfire to help discover new methods for biofuel production. A large medical device company is redefining its new product development process using Goldfire to knowledge-enable its innovation workers and thereby drive much higher productivity, much richer IP generation, and much faster development of competitive value-driving products.

Our clients use Goldfire to help them establish repeatable, predictable methods of innovation to drive many different aspects of their business.

PwC: What are the methodologies that you include in your product?

JT: We essentially have a set of 14 out-of-the-box innovation tasks, as we call them. These are solutions we’ve developed by working with our global clients and analyzing their needs relative to innovation and the key tasks that innovation workers do in their organizations. Within the software, we can provide a repeatable framework to address these specific innovation tasks.

For example, one category in innovation is market research, another category is new product development, another category that we address is existing product improvement and enhancement, another category is risk management, and then the final category is IP [intellectual property] management. Each of these different high-level categories does specific things that people must accomplish on a regular basis.

You might need to examine potential new markets and understand what the opportunity is. How does that opportunity relate to your business from a standpoint of fit, feasibility, and financial practicality? If you’re a product engineer looking at an existing product line, you might need to look at issues such as a new competitive challenge. How do you make sure your product line is going to address that challenge? Or how do you improve your product line to meet new government regulations?

From the IP perspective, you might need to understand how to erect the proper wall to protect your intellectual property. Or, if you are blocked from entry into a new market by a competitive IP element, how can you find alternative technology configurations that allow you to sidestep that roadblock so that you can get into the market but at the same time avoid any kind of exposure from patent infringement? These are just examples of some of what we would call the innovation tasks that people must do. In Goldfire, we provide defined methods of accomplishing those goals.

PwC: What are the solutions that support these methods? Where does TRIZ¹ fit in?

JT: To support the different innovation workflows, we provide lots of different tools in our solution. For example, on the quality side, different standard approaches include failure mode, effects, and criticality analysis [FMECA], HAZOP [hazard and operability] if you’re in the chemical industry, and so on.

Another innovation-specific methodology built into the platform is the one you mentioned called TRIZ. It’s just one of a number of tools that the Goldfire innovation platform leverages to help make innovation and knowledge workers more effective.

TRIZ recognizes and matches patterns on what is called technical contradictions. As a general capability, it also includes other ways of examining, understanding, and solving a problem. Specifically, it includes this method called Su-Field Analysis, which is a form of functional analysis of engineering systems. Goldfire provides a toolkit around functional analysis modeling as well as functional simplification, which has been one of the other TRIZ tools of value in the innovation discipline.

PwC: If you think about the end-to-end process of idea to cash, where do your solutions fit in that process and what technology are they using?

JT: As I talk to leaders in global corporations about where they see challenges, I don’t hear a lot of people complaining about the ability to generate ideas. What I hear mostly is, “We’ve got tons of ideas. Everybody’s giving us ideas. What we lack is the ability to filter the ideas, to really be able to understand how to focus on the ideas that are going to have the greatest potential. And then, given that we’ve identified those ideas, how do we move from an idea to an actual deliverable concept to delivered products?” Often, people use Goldfire to help them identify and focus on what they need to accomplish. When you look at an idea and the road toward a deliverable concept and then eventually a delivered product, the eventual product needs to fit certain metrics relative to alignment with the competencies and strategy of the corporation. It needs to fit relative to revenue and profitability generation, or contribution to margin, or feasibility and practicality to manufacture.

Goldfire helps companies address those issues. One of the three components I mentioned of Goldfire is a state-of-the-art semantic research capability. It is the ability to look at various streams of internal as well as external sources of information—things from their industry, from outside their industry, on social media channels where discussions and conversations about their products and their marketplaces may be occurring—and be able to find very quickly and precisely the concepts that they need to understand so they can make good decisions about how various potential options and ideas map to these different types of metrics.


"At the end of the day, when you look at how high-value innovation occurs, it really is the notion of synthesizing information in a specific context of a business problem."


PwC: If tools need to support the end-to-end innovation process from ideas to cash, what capabilities do they need?

JT: Lots of different constituencies are involved in the entire innovation process. To move beyond just simply having pockets with individuals who may drive the occasional accidental innovation per se, to establish a repeatable and predictable environment of innovation, and to build a healthy and active community of innovation within the enterprise, you really must look at all those constituencies and understand two things. One, what are the roles of those constituencies and what are the specific paths they follow to contribute to that value-creation process? And, two, what kinds of information do they both consume and produce in this process?

At the end of the day, when you look at how high-value innovation occurs, it really is the notion of synthesizing information in a specific context of a business problem. Fundamentally, that means that organizations must bring together these different elements of reliable methods that they can equip their knowledge workers with. But organizations also must equip their knowledge workers with knowledge—knowledge that is not readily accessed today. When you do that, you start to create an innovation intelligence ecosystem that allows each individual knowledge worker, based on their role, to have optimal access to information on a just-in-time basis to help them drive forward their contribution.

PwC: What role do you think the CIO and the IT organization could play in innovation?

JT: I think the CIO and the IT organization have a tremendous opportunity these days to help their company drive innovation. In the past, a lot of companies viewed IT as an opponent of innovation, and that is sad, because IT is really in the catbird seat to help drive innovation.

Most companies today lack a collaborative infrastructure for innovation, and they really need to put one in place. In doing so, companies should start breaking down information silos and establishing the mechanisms that allow broad cross-organizational leverage and reuse of knowledge. They need to take the information that’s locked up statically in different data stores and mobilize it. IT is in the perfect position to drive that, and that’s why IT has this great opportunity. IT can look at putting in place the information-sharing policies and driving those within the corporation to really help these organizations.

IT can evaluate what are the state-of-the-art solutions that will help people use that knowledge most effectively. CIOs can ask themselves, what are the needs in my organization? If mine is a global corporation, do I have people in English-speaking countries and, let’s say, French-speaking and Japanese-speaking countries who are creating local documents that contain important technical content I want to be able to share across those regions? How do I do that? These are some of the problems that IT could be looking at. If I want to create an infrastructure to allow both passive and active collaboration within my organization, how can I support that? All these questions have a strong IT element to them as an enabling factor in helping an organization drive innovation efficiencies.

PwC: Are you sometimes concerned that you would be seen as part of the failed knowledge management wave of technology that seems to have come and gone?

JT: That isn’t a concern. In the past waves of knowledge management, people were forced to create taxonomies of information that could then be published to user communities. The reality was that those taxonomies never worked. They weren’t transparent to the user communities, as they were always developed by someone else. They didn’t map to the way people thought, and they didn’t map to the way people were having conversation and dialogue, so essentially past knowledge management efforts didn’t give people access to information in a useful manner. One of the things our semantic technology enables is the ability to not think about that problem.

When people deploy Goldfire, they don’t have to think about creating taxonomies or how to organize the information. Goldfire’s semantic technology allows the data to essentially describe its own taxonomy. And, because it’s coming directly from the content generated by the user community, that taxonomy is in their language. It’s structured the way they think about information, and that makes information access seamless. Additionally, because the semantic technology is driven around the concept of answering people’s questions, users typically never need to browse a taxonomy.


"[Companies] need to take the information that’s locked up statically in different data stores and mobilize it. IT is in the perfect position to drive that."


PwC: All users now are accustomed to Internet search engines to look for information. Can you contrast how Goldfire would answer questions differently from how the popular Internet search engines would answer the same question?

JT: If we look at the search aspect, which is only one dimension of Goldfire, Internet search engines are optimized for a different audience. The vast majority of users are consumers and not necessarily product engineers or product marketing people, and so a lot of the usage of language and hence the influences that affect the ranking algorithms to deliver information are skewed in a different direction.

If I use my favorite Internet search engine and I say, for instance, I need to know about heavy metal, I can type in “heavy metal.” I’m going to see a lot of information about rock-and-roll bands, but as an engineer, I may be more interested in specific elements and what their effects are and so on. It’s an entirely different orientation. We have designed our solution for the users in business and for their innovation problems. The semantic search has been trained on tens of millions of technical and business documents.

On top of that, Goldfire is an innovation platform. It’s not just a matter of using a search engine. Let’s say you’re an engineer and you’ve been told, “This product of ours has a bearing assembly that is failing prematurely. What’s going on?” One of the first things you might want to do is ask, “What could be happening? Where should I look?” Maybe you’ll go through a process of root-cause analysis. Often it can be a hit-or-miss issue, because you might not have the specific domain expertise. There are a lot of reasons why you might not think of everything.

You can ask Goldfire to participate in your root-cause analysis as a virtual subject matter expert. So when you have an issue in your analysis such as a seal that might fail, you can ask Goldfire, “What could be causing seal failure?” And you can do that without ever leaving the context of your root-cause analysis. If you say, “Help me understand what might be a potential cause of seal failure,” then Goldfire will automatically present you with a classified and categorized list—based on global literature—of documented and understood causes of seal failure around all the different issues and categorize them according to their potential relevance to your problem. A simple search engine can’t deliver that kind of capability.

¹ TRIZ, which originated in Russia and was created by Soviet inventor and science fiction writer Genrich Altshuller, is also known as the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. The theory includes a practical methodology, tool sets, a knowledge base, and model-based technology for generating new ideas and solutions for problem solving.