Larry Gastwirt



After 30 years with Exxon Mobil, where incidentally he was a member of a team led by no less a luminary than our own Mike Belaga, Larry Gastwirt, our speaker last week, joined the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, where he was appointed Affiliate Professor of Management and Engineering Management and Director of the Howe School Alliance for Technology Management. He brought with him a bevy of his own beautiful cheer leaders; the topic of his presentation was “Innovation in a socially networked world”.

He defined “innovation” as the “introduction of something new”. Examples were the smart phone, the i-Pad or, more dramatically, the American Revolution that introduced the concept of liberty and justice for all.

To be useful, innovation had to lead to the creation of value – this was a long torturous path and most innovations failed. But innovation had been the engine of growth for the world’s economy. A Google study of the use of the word “invention” showed how it had taken off after the Industrial revolution and then the word “innovation” had exploded after 1945 and surpassed “invention” in 1970. A Business Week article suggested that “vibrant innovation” was needed to get the United States out of its current economic predicament. He cited the need, that perhaps came as no surprise to us, for the country to:

       get its finances in order

       reduce foreign oil dependency

       reduce intransigence in politics

       strengthen the nation’s infrastructure, and finally

       strengthen research and innovation

Moving on to a discussion of “Social Media”, he defined this as an “on-line environment aimed at enabling a potentially massive community of participants to collaborate productively”. Examples, of course, were Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia and so on.

This led him on to discuss “Social Networking” that was the use of social media to enable collaboration. An outstanding example of this was Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” that was a crowd sourcing Internet marketplace that enabled computer programmers (known as Requesters) to co-ordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks that computers were currently unable to do. The Requesters were able to post tasks known as HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), and responders, known as Providers could then browse among the tasks and respond to them for a monetary payment set by the Requester.   Larry had done this in preparation for his talk to us, asking – what might be the content of a talk on social networking to a group of savvy (?) retired men and he offered a reward of 40 cents (about what we’re worth, I suppose). He received 15 responses within 14 hours, some of which were quite thoughtful, several from non-American sources and most about 100 words in length although one went on for 500 words.

The power of social networking was extraordinary. It had led, for example, to Verizon dropping its $2 fee for its credit card, to Susan G. Komen backing down on the decision not to support breast cancer screening at Planned Parenthood, to Bank of America’s aborted $5 service charge – 300,000 people let BofA know what they thought about that idea.

IBM connected 300,000 employees around the world to continuously contribute and improve decision making and on a human level, in Hungary there was the case of a 16 year old boy who was suffering from pancreatitis for the 6th time. This was posted on Twitter and suggested diagnoses poured in within hours.

Another product, besides Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, was that could leverage external partners to contribute to internal innovative initiatives. Procter & Gamble used it for 40% of their new products. And in the field of arctic oil-spill clean-up – an industry outsider, applying his knowledge of cement mixing, suggested a way to break up a frozen oil slick and was awarded $20,000 for his idea.

There were dangers to social networking – an increase in pornography, identity theft, postings of misinformation and (a nice example) a lady who, for $5, promised to testify, before anyone, to anything you wanted her to say. However, there was no denying the fact that social networking was transforming the way we communicated.

In response to the question: was social networking disruptive to the way of the world? –  Larry said No, social anthropologists looking at hunter gatherer tribes or the distinction between chimpanzees and humans, had noted that our ability to learn from one another and to collaborate, was a fundamental human quality that brought out the best in our species.

This was an interesting and thought provoking presentation even for a Luddite like me. On the Peter Knight scale of 1-10, I awarded Larry an 8.