Connecting the world

Can you guess which innovative technology led to a worldwide interconnect, provided instantaneous news, reshaped businesses, gave birth to e-commerce, experienced massive growth and drove increasingly complex encryption and standards due to scams and fraudulent usage?

Most people would immediately suggest that this description obviously refers to the Internet. However, what if I were to tell you that the innovation described above was invented around the year 1840, well before the telephone?

In fact, this technology was the telegraph and it truly changed the world at that time, much like how we could not imagine a world without the Internet today. In his book The Victorian Internet noted journalist Tom Standage, shows the parallels between the telegraph and the Internet are nothing short of remarkable.

Actually, we should not be surprised by their similarities. Both innovations came about from the imperative to connect people and businesses. Innovators who have used the Internet to achieve this objective have profited. Those who have lost sight of the goal to connect people and businesses and have offered frivolous services instead, have lost money.

Innovation requires you to keep your eye on the target and not be distracted by any hurdles or stumbling blocks in your way. Renowned literary figure Henry James summed it up brilliantly when he said obstacles are those frightening things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.

The Internet threatened the business models of many conventional companies, but those who saw it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle have managed to ride the wave.

Western Union, a name familiar in Malaysia these days, is one such company. This 160-year-old organisation was a telegraph pioneer. When the Internet took centre stage, Western Union redesigned itself to become an e-commerce company specialising in money transfers. Today, it operates in more than 200 countries and has 2,500 service providers in Malaysia.

Although the telegraph was absolutely core to its business, Western Union was not fixated on the technology. The company realised its strength was in connecting people and businesses and the telegraph was merely a means to an end. Since the Internet could do this more effectively, the company embraced it and made the transition from the "Victorian Internet" to the modern Internet easily.

It is important to separate your core strength from your product offering. Just because a company makes motorcycles does not mean that is its core strength. Decades ago, Honda discovered its core strength was actually making engines, and motorcycles just happened to reflect that strength. This realisation made Honda venture into automobiles and today, it is one of the largest car manufacturers in the world.

Most housewives swear by Pyrex, glass kitchenware that can be used directly on the stovetop, the conventional oven and microwave oven. It looks so presentable it can be moved straight to the dining table, piping hot. Corningware is exactly the same.

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