Revisiting the Great Innovation Debate

January 2, 2013
Courtesy of Wonderfully Complex's photostream on flickr.

Courtesy of Wonderfully Complex’s photostream on flickr.

An early Skilful Minds post introduced The Great Innovation Debate, focusing on the distinctions between Tom Friedland’s conception that when it comes to innovation the world is flat, and the alternative point of view espoused by Richard Florida that the world is spiky. Meaning that the aggregation of creative people in cities, in proximity to one another, largely drives innovation and economic growth. As our previous post noted, John Hagel added an interesting vantage point on the debate by observing that, “Even though you can participate in innovation from more remote locations, if you want to develop your talent more rapidly than others, you are more likely to be able to do that in a major urban area.” In other words, the debate about innovation is largely a difference of viewpoints on the feasibility of effective collaboration across distributed people who work together to get jobs done. These collective efforts typically exist as cross-functional teams working with business partners, or customers.

The innovation debate was raised again recently when John Hagel and John Seely Brown added substantially to the questions behind it in a post titled, Friedmand vs. Florida and offered some key insights that coincide with key points from the McKinsey survey. The gist of Hagel and Brown’s position goes as follows:

It’s true that globalization has led to increased competition; however, there is also a significant opportunity for companies to access the talent gathering in different spike cities and then connect those people around the world using digital technology infrastructure so that they might leverage the skills of, and learn from, one another. Such a model does not develop overnight; to move from competitors to collaborators, participants must form long-term, trust-based relationships with one another.  When these relationships develop, then firms can connect capabilities across spikes, and ultimately, pursue opportunities for innovation and capability building across spikes.

Consider the following observations from recent research on the importance of proximity in how team members relate to one another. A recent Forrestor report, Making Collaboration Work for the 21st Century’s Distributed Workforce (registration required) noted that most information workers (including Gen Yers) prefer email, telephone conversations, and face-to-face meetings. These preferences appear to result as much from limitations in the available collaboration tools as anything else. The Forrestor recommendations are three-fold:

  1. create the sense of a “shared office” among distributed employees
  2. use tools that follow distributed employees on the go
  3. provide collaboration tools that make the work easier, i.e. are integrated into the work.

I’ll get back to the major challenge among the three outlined in the Forrestor report (creating the sense of a shared office) in a following post. First though it is important to note that the Forrestor report’s findings indicate fundamental differences between the opposing points of view in the debate over innovation by Friedland and Florida, especially as they relate to distributed employees (i.e. people who are not colocated). For example, a recent McKinsey Global Survey of 2,927 executives, Making Innovation Structures Work (registration required), offered two key insights dealing with innovation that merit attention in relation to the topic.

  1. “Companies cannot rely on a single innovation function alone to create successful outcomes, it must be integrated with the entire organization.”
  2. “The functions located near talent or target markets have more market success and meet objectives more effectively than others, though they are less likely than the functions at or near HQ to engage regularly with company leaders.”

The first conclusion relates to the McKinsey report’s overall insight that organizations are more likely to succeed with innovation efforts when those initiatives are integrated with corporate strategy as well as benefiting from the engagement and support of company leadership. It implicitly recognizes the ineffectiveness of organizing innovation efforts that occur in corporate silos, such as innovation centers or research & development labs.

On the other hand, the second conclusion recognizes the constraints faced in organizing innovation efforts among distributed employees. Creating a sense of a shared office, or workspace, is fundamental to efforts attempting to integrate innovation and corporate strategy, especially if the corporate strategy involves social business.

In my thinking, the key to Hagel and Brown’s point is that, as Gunter Sonnenfeld recently observed in a post called Relationship Economics, “relationships are the foundation of the social web, and the basis for the flat, seemingly infinite distribution plane that is the Internet.”  Rather than focus on whether the world is flat or spiky, serious attention is better paid to how enterprises organize collaboration and what limitations place and cultural context impose on that organizational effort to create innovation capabilities. How to organize distributed collaboration and manage the social interactions involved is the topic that requires discussion when these concerns are brought into focus.

Advertisements

On the Roots of Social Computing

November 17, 2011

I recently received an invitation from Mads Soegaard, Editor-in-Chief at Interaction-Design.org to offer those who read this blog an early view of a new chapter on Social Computing in their encyclopedia. I’m a little late on this writing for you to get a pre-publication view of the chapter but I wanted to make sure and point it out for those who take topics like social computing seriously. Thomas Erickson wrote the chapter. To be candid, I didn’t really know much about Thomas until I read it. He seems like a very interesting person. Thomas’ chapter takes seriously the point of an early comment I made in a post here in 2008 on Social Software, Community, and Organization: Where Practice Meets Process, specifically my point that not enough of the influential discussion on the topic took seriously the roots of what it means to do social computing.

The distinctions involved are as old as the study of social interaction in organizations, especially the characteristics of routine work. However, we don’t need to go back to the 1950s when the distinction first emerged in the study of industrial organization to understand the significance of Ross’ point. Indeed, the early 1980s will do. Rob Kling discussed computing as social organization as early as 1982 in Marshall Yovits’ edited series on Advances In Computers. Drawing from the symbolic interactionist tradition, Rob distinguished between a line of work which, he contended, indicates what people actually do in computing work, compared to formal descriptions of that work, or what we might today refer to as business processes. Kling’s work was one precursor to the focus on computer supported collaborative work  (CSCW) in studies of group collaboration, most notably developed at Xerox PARC.

The social roots of social computing are important for influentials to keep in mind as they discuss current developments in Web 2.0 technologies, especially their use in the enterprise. The point is not a simple academic exercise of giving credit to what came before. Rather, it is to take note that the distinctions made explicit…regarding practice/process are as old as the modern, hierarchical organization and seem to survive regardless of the way communication technology is applied in it. Those who discuss tensions between social software and Enterprise 2.0, or learning management systems and eLearning 2.0, are pointing to persistent challenges in how organizations work.

Thomas’ chapter provides an excellent overview of the roots, history, and development of the concept of social computing as a concept that promises to stand the test of time regardless of the labels used to describe it, e.g. Web 2.0, Social Media, Social Business, Enterprise 2.0, etc. I recommend anyone involved in current discussions related to compound nouns like social media, social business, social “this” or “that” take a look at Thomas’ chapter as well as the Interaction-Design.org encyclopedia which offers in-depth analysis of such topics.


Social Flow and the Paradox of Exception Handling in ACM

September 28, 2011
Compliments of Dave Gray’s photostream

There is nothing like an exception to the way things are done to highlight the need to increase knowledge sharing, especially if the exception is one instance of a pattern that results in bad experiences for customers. As Jay Cross recently noted, people learning at work rely on social, or informal learning, around 80% of the time. Interestingly, I noted in a former post, Social Learning and Exception Handling, that John Hagel and John Seeley Brown contend that “as much as two-thirds of headcount time in major enterprise functions like marketing, manufacturing and supply chain management is spent on exception handling.” It is not coincidence that the two numbers are aligned.

Social Learning and Exception Handling, discussed the organizational challenges involved in dealing with exceptions to business process and their relationship to the shared experience of people working together saying,

The most basic point to remember is that exceptions to formal business processes require efforts to design a scalable learning architecture that supports content co-creation needed to adapt to emergent challenges and manage the flow of that adaptation through an enterprise’s ecosystem. Whether judging an adaptation successful requires it to result in new formal learning content, i.e. content co-creation, or a new business process, i.e. organizational innovation, or both, remains an open question.

Informal, social learning is key to exception handling since both make up most of what people do in organizing work in enterprises. We know people face difficulty when drawing from shared experience, especially in distributed teams because fewer points of common reference exist. Leadership and management consultants often contend a common organizational culture pulls teams together, even though distributed teams frequently span national, regional, and global locations. However, the mere challenge of everyone on a team knowing who else is a member can prove daunting as enterprises grow.

One of the promises of social business is the capability to embed social networks into human relationships to organize business enterprise in a way that people can act together without centralized command and control. The discussions linking the capability involved with its organizational implications for group performance are far fewer. Dave Gray’s discussion of pods in The Connected Company is one notable effort in that direction. In my conception of it, the key challenge is one of organizing businesses for social flow.

Read the rest of this entry »


Social Flow in Gameful Design

May 21, 2011

Courtesy of Haxney's Photostream

To start I want to acknowledge that the term “gamification” is not the subject of this post even though it is the buzz term these days. So before going further let me explain why I think the term is misleading.

When used as a noun, gamification implies a standardized design process and I don’t think one exists for implementing game design that enables relationships in social business. I prefer to follow Jane McGonical’s use of the term gameful to reinforce the point that the spirit of games rather than the mechanics is most important in designing for what makes experience playful, especially in collaboration. I do use gamification in the context of other people’s discussions though.  In additon, I use the verb gamify to imply an activity.

Don’t Gamify Wild Bill discussed the importance of designing for voluntary play in serious games. Playfulness is the baseline requirement for any game designed to provide useful indicators for gauging individual and organizational successes over time.

The qualifier over time is the key point to keep in mind. Specifically, those interested in gamifying employee engagement in social business, and who also aim to effectively use collaboration, must optimally design for emergence not just competition and cooperation as guiding principles.

To echo the position taken by many game designers on the subject of gamification, you can’t simply add game mechanics to employee participation in business processes and expect voluntary engagement by players over time.

Read the rest of this entry »


Don’t Gamify Wild Bill

April 26, 2011
Courtesy of eschipul photostream on flickr.

There is a lot, actually a whole lot, of buzz over the past year about the gamification of business, specifically marketing, training, customer service. The discussion too often overlooks the simple point that it is the experience with it, the playfulness of it, that makes a game. Not the scoring system, or the rewards, or anything else can make up for a game that participants (customers or employees) don’t experience as play. I’m not saying that incorporating game mechanics into relationships cannot create a motivating dynamic, at least over the short run. It certainly can.

Jesse Schell offered the point earlier this year that a game is a problem solving situation people enter into because they want to. He went on to say that if you can make a task feel like a situation people enter into because they want to then you’ve made it a game. Additionally, in her presentation “We Don’t Need No Stinkin Badges” Jane McGonical observes that gameful experience requires that participants experience the spirit of gaming rather than simply the mechanics, in other words that the rewards of playing a game people want to continue playing are intrinsic rather than extrensic.

The point of this post is to note that gamifying business to engage customers is one thing. Customers can almost always walk away from a commercial relationship if they want to, except perhaps in dealings with health insurance companies and utilities. Gamifying business to motivate employees is entirely another type of design challenge.

Using gamification to elicit patterns of action that enable employees to work together, such as knowledge sharing, easily slips into involuntary play and reinforces the type of competition that currently sustains siloed organizations. I’ll add to this point in a subsequent post on gameful collaboration where I contend gamification in social business aiming to increase collaboration must design for emergence, not just competition and cooperation, as guiding design principles for play. However, for now, let me just flesh out the point about gamifying employee relationships with an example from the construction industry and personal experience.

Read the rest of this entry »


Failing to See Money Hiding in Plain Sight

October 4, 2010

I’ve discussed ethnography, especially digital ethnography, several times here taking note that, whether we use ethnography in marketing  or design research remains irrelevant to the methods employed. What matters is whether we develop the research questions around the assumption that sociocultural practices provide the data source for answers. Ethnographers research settings, situations, and actions, with the goal of discovering surprising relationships. The most surprising relationships though are often hiding in plain sight, right under our noses.

I was recently pointed to a video from a link in the Yahoo Group Anthrodesign. The video, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, provides a unique example of insights about people we can glean from designing situations that transgress established sociocultural practices. I actually watched it three times, and not because Time listed it in the top five viral videos of the week…kind of like people (at least some people) did when the moonwalking bear video came out. Rather, my interest in it was how the mere observation of the actions taken by pedestrians leads us to experience surprise. More on this below. For now, let’s consider the video itself.

After sticking labels on 100 one dollar bills, with a unique message written on each, and clipping those dollar bills to individual leaves on a tree, Ben, Brian, and Amy video recorded how people respond to money hanging on a tree as they walk by it on a street.  The narrator, Amy,  indicates no crowds showed up to grab all the money they could get, though a few did take more than one dollar at a time. Most people who took money, a minority, pulled a couple of dollars, or one, and moved on.

(UPDATE: You will need to click on the Watch on YouTube link to see the video. Some proprietary thing I’m sure) 😉

Amy offers two lessons learned from the Money Tree:

  1. That people routinely walk by a “tree filled with free money” without even noticing
  2. That people can look at a tree filled with money and not even see it

The Money Tree offers an example of what social psychology, but especially ethnomethodology, refers to as a breaching experiment. Breaching experiments typically involve a researcher breaking a rule about everyday life and then analyzing other people’s response. The Money Tree exemplifies a situation designed to break a tacit understanding about money and sidewalks.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees”, is a phrase most people in Chicago (the location of the Money Tree) probably know. We don’t routinely see money hanging from a tree along a sidewalk. It is certainly more common, as the bicyclist’s experience in the video shows, to see money on a sidewalk. And, I’d wager, most of us just think someone lost it. In other words, merely by setting up the situation to violate the pedestrians’ tacit knowledge of what walking down a sidewalk entails, the videographers show us something about people.

At the same time that the video offers us a surprising experience, it sure would be interesting to know what people who failed to take money were thinking. Anyone else find this interesting?

Posted by Larry R. Irons

Share this post…

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook