Houghton Shifted Corning from Cookware to Fiber Optics

(p. A13) When Amory Houghton became chief executive of Corning Glass Works in 1964, the company founded by his great-great grandfather was thriving. Known to the general public for Pyrex measuring cups and Corning Ware casseroles, it dominated the U.S. market for the glass used to encase TV tubes.

But the company, now known as Corning Inc., proved too reliant on those tubes, which accounted for as much as 75% of profit. In the mid-1970s, the company faced a recession and the loss of TV-related business as Japanese imports captured the U.S. market. Profits collapsed, and Mr. Houghton had to chop costs, including at the headquarters in Corning, N.Y. The global workforce dropped by more than one-third.

. . .

“It was tough making these cuts,” he said, “particularly when you lived in a small town where you knew a lot of these people.”

Corning bounced back, unlike many other U.S. manufacturing giants. That was partly because Mr. Houghton made a long-term commitment to development of fiber optics. He correctly saw that hair-thin strands of glass would replace copper wire in transmissions of voice and data. “It’s our turf, with our patents,” he said.

By the late 1990s, optical fiber and related telecommunications products accounted for more than half of Corning’s operating profits.

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Executive Lifted Corning With Bet on Fiber Optics.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 14, 2020): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 13, 2020, and the title “Amory Houghton’s Bet on Fiber Optics Helped Save Corning.”)

A City’s Prosperity “Can Be Fickle and Fleeting”

(p. 18) As the world pulls up its drawbridges during a time of pandemic and questions the merits of globalization, Malacca is a reminder that such transoceanic exchange has a long history of bringing both promise and peril.

And the city’s ultimate fate may serve as a warning that the prosperity globalization bestows on some can be fickle and fleeting. A city that once stood at the global crossroads can devolve into a backwater, and a once-thriving culture can face extinction.

Malacca’s port, once one of the richest on earth, silted up, and the city became a historical footnote. The spices that drove the age of exploration — nutmeg, cloves and mace — now molder in dusty cabinets, no longer treasured commodities.

And yes, a contagion struck, too, a plague that weakened the Portuguese hold on the city, paving the way for the Dutch and then the British, who favored other entrepôts and left Malacca to its slow decline.

For the full story, see:

Hannah Beech. “A Rich Melting Pot Centuries Ago, a Globalization Relic Today.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, April 12, 2020): 18.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 11, 2020, and has the title “500 Years Ago, This Port Linked East to West. Its Fate Was to Fade Away.”)

“Very Smart People Doing Things in Half the Time With Great Urgency and Loving It”

(p. A15) As World War II gave way to the Cold War, jet engines and nuclear weapons increased the importance of radar and the strategic significance of countering it. Mr. Westwick fast-forwards through early, tentative attempts to do so, taking the reader to Southern California in the 1970s, where two defense contractors—Lockheed and Northrop—competed to develop modern stealth aircraft.

. . .

“Stealth” is leavened with plenty of anecdotes. One engineer designs a key curve for a stealth plane called Tacit Blue by fidgeting with modeling clay while on a trip to Disneyland with his kids. Another jury-rigs an F-117 by stringing a grid of piano wire over a hollow in its exterior to block incoming radar waves. It was meant to be a stopgap but ended up becoming part of the aircraft’s design. But Mr. Westwick’s main concern is to convey a sense of what it was like to work with such collaborative intensity. As one engineer recalls: “It’s very smart people doing things in half the time with great urgency and loving it. Absolutely loving it and in a way loving the people they work with.”

For the full review, see:

Konstantin Kakaes. “BOOKSHELF; Mission: Invisible.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, January 30, 2020): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 29, 2020, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Stealth’ Review: Mission Invisible.”)

The book under review, is:

Westwick, Peter. Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Study Claims 77% of Economic Growth is Due to Incremental Innovation

I am surprised by, and dubious of, the claim that 77% of economic growth comes from incremental innovation. That implies that leapfrog innovation, or creative destruction, is not very important. I will need to read and ponder the study that claimed that result.

(p. A15) The comparison of two potential options—known as A/B testing—is now routinely baked into the development of customer-facing software, Mr. Thomke reports. Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google “each conduct more than ten thousand online experiments annually,” he writes, adding that even companies without tech roots (Nike, State Farm) run trials like this regularly. The tests might evaluate, say, the components of a website—style of font, color of background, shape of buttons, choice of words—and continuously adjust them based on user response.  . . .

As much as Mr. Thomke, a Harvard Business School professor, believes that “all businesses should be experimenters,” he wisely observes that “not all innovation decisions can be tested.” A/B testing may not be the best way to evaluate a completely new product or a radically different business model, he concedes, but the approach is the ideal driver of small changes. Though we celebrate disruption, Mr. Thomke urges companies to “tap into the power of high-velocity incrementalism,” explaining that “most progress is achieved by implementing hundreds or thousands of minor improvements.” He points to a study that attributes 77% of economic growth to improvements in existing products and notes that the structured system of incremental improvements that Lego implemented following its near-bankruptcy in 2004 drove 95% of annual sales and helped restore the company to profitability.

For the full review, see:

David A. Shaywitz. “Test, Test And Test Again.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, March 16, 2020): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 15, 2020, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Experimentation Works’ and ‘The Power of Experiments’ Review: Test, Test and Test Again.”)

The book discussed in the passages quoted above, is:

Thomke, Stefan H. Experimentation Works: The Surprising Power of Business Experiments. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2020.

The “study” mentioned above that attributes 77% of economic growth to incremental innovation, is:

Garcia-Macia, Daniel, Chang-Tai Hsieh, and Peter J. Klenow. “How Destructive Is Innovation?” Econometrica 87, no. 5 (Sept. 2019): 1507-41.

“Entrepreneur Sent Our Words Across an Ocean”

Cyrus Field is described as a “project entrepreneur” in my Openness to Creative Destruction book. In the op-ed linked-to below, I celebrate his achievement.

My book, mentioned above, is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

OUP Offers Free Download of Chap. 9: “Innovation Bound or Unbound by Culture and Institutions”

Oxford University Press (OUP) has created a list of 6 books they recommend on business innovation. If you follow the link below, you can download a free PDF of Chapter 9 (“Innovation Bound or Unbound by Culture and Institutions”) of my Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. Alas, I think the free download is only available through February 29, 2020. (Chapter 9 is not my favorite chapter, but free is free;)

My book is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

No Evidence Base that Smartphones Cause Anxiety and Depression in Teens

(p. B1) SAN FRANCISCO — It has become common wisdom that too much time spent on smartphones and social media is responsible for a recent spike in anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, especially among teenagers.

But a growing number of academic researchers have produced studies that suggest the common wisdom is wrong.

The latest research, published on Friday [January 17, 2020] by two psychology professors, combs through about 40 studies that have examined the link between social media use and both depression and anxiety among adolescents. That link, according to the professors, is small and inconsistent.

“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

For the full story, see:

Nathaniel Popper. “The Menace of Screen Time Could Be More of a Mirage.” The New York Times (Saturday, January 18, 2020): B1 & B6.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 17, 2020, and has the title “Panicking About Your Kids’ Phones? New Research Says Don’t.”)

The Odgers paper, mentioned in the passage quoted above, is:

Odgers, Candice L., and Michaeline R. Jensen. “Annual Research Review: Adolescent Mental Health in the Digital Age: Facts, Fears, and Future Directions.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (published first online Jan. 17, 2020).