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Communications of the ACM

The Profession of IT

A Clash of Civilizations

arrows on a path map, illustration

Credit: IR Stone

We are living at a unique moment in history where long-held views of how the world works and what it takes to be successful at innovation are falling short. Once upon a time we "knew" that research is the first stage in a pipeline that leads to marketable products. We "knew" that if we invested sufficiently in basic research that we would generate applied research and attain a competitive lead. We "knew" that we could maximize those investments if we applied sufficient controls on each stage of the pipeline. We "knew" this organized pipeline is historically sound because we saw how successful modern factories had become at turning out high-quality, low-cost products at scale. We "knew" these truths applied for businesses, organizations, and governments.

The pipeline idea traces back to the development of 19th century factories when innovation meant transforming inventions into products for the masses. We "knew" pipelines would work more generally than in factories because every change that emerged in the world seemed to unfold in distinct sequential stages. We saw pipelines all around us. We "knew" the education pipeline from K-12 through college to postgraduate school produced the educated workforce both industry and government need to compete successfully. We "knew" the military pipeline transformed raw recruits into military professionals and allowed the success of the all-volunteer forces. We "knew" the political pipeline transformed local leaders into state and national leaders. We "knew" the career pipeline transformed fresh graduates into professionals who could support a company's offers. We "knew" that, in all these domains, the innovation pipeline would systematically stage by stage transform raw ideas into useful outcomes. Over the years, the pipeline idea has been codified into business theory and government policy. It has survived so long because pipeline processes delivered good and often repeatable results that sustained our confidence in what "we knew."


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