Here are some thoughts on innovation and how it can be fostered within the confines of large organisations. As will soon be apparent anyway, this is from the perspective of a R&D worker for a large technology company.
I am a big fan of James Burke, the science historian. His Connections series of TV shows, books and columns in the Scientific American are always illuminating and interesting. In these works he traces technological and scientific advances through connections of historical events, hence the title. The events themselves are sometimes significant and well-known, but surprisingly often it is the events which are (at the time) seen as insignificant, that play a crucial role in advancing the cause of science and technology. The result is a wholly optimistic and positive view on the impact of ordinary people. From the introduction to the Connections book:
In some way or other, each one of us affects the course of history. Because of the extraordinarily serendipitous way change happens, something you do during the course of today may eventually change the world.
As you will see in this book, ordinary people have often made the difference. A self-educated Scottish mechanic once made a minor adjustment to a steam pump and triggered the whole Industrial Revolution. A nineteenth-century weatherman developed a cloud-making device that just happened to revel to Ernest Rutherford, a physicist he new, that the atom could be split. Thanks to a guy working on hydraulic pressure in Italian Renaissance water gardens we have the combustion engine. So you don’t have to be Einstein to make your mark on events. We all contribute.
I take great comfort in this. Even if I completely fail in my life’s ambition to discover a cure for mumbling, through this humble blog I am sure to be influential enough to inspire one of my talented readers to achieve their lifelong goals. Or maybe not, it’s a nice thought anyway.
It’s not so hard to believe. Have you ever been stuck on a problem, and in the course of describing it to someone else, you instantly hit upon the solution? We influence each other all the time, even when we say nothing.
The Accidental Innovator
Burke goes on to say that the connections that trigger great progress are often made by accident:
Second-guessing the result of an occurrence is difficult, because when people or things or ideas come together in new ways , the rules of arithmetic are changed so that one plus one suddenly makes three. This is the fundamental mechanism of innovation, and when it happens the result is always more than the sum of the parts.
Clearly our ability to recognise the significance of an event or idea, and predict the outcome of subsequent connections to it, is incredibly limited. I particularly like his example of the French silk loom makers who applied punched paper cards to the problem of making patterns in woven silk more easily and with greater consistency. They can hardly be expected to have predicted the eventual use of this technology hundreds of years later by Herman Hollerith in designing a machine to tabulate population information in the 1890 U.S. census. Which in turn gave birth to the computer.
The vital role that communication plays in promoting innovation should be obvious. Burke gives examples:
The easier it is to communicate, the faster change happens. Every time there is an improvement in the technology with which ideas and people come together, major change ensues. The Greek alphabet gave birth to philosophy, logic, and the democratic process. The printing press generated the entire Scientific Revolution. The telegraph brought modern business methods into existence and held empires together.
So if we care about promoting innovation, we need to ensure that there is involvement from as many people as possible, and that communication is as free and convenient as possible. By the way, this seems consistent with the views that James Surowiecki expresses in his excellent book The Wisdom of Crowds although Surowiecki adds some additional constraints such as that of diversity and independence. Oops, did I just make a Connection?
We all make connections between ideas and people all the time, but (perhaps rightly) reject most as inconsequential. Assuming that we can do very little to improve our ability to recognise the significance of each new connection, it seems that the most helpful thing for promoting innovation is to increase the number of connections that we make. That is, encourage active participation from a wide and diverse population, and enable communication and the free exchange of ideas.
Company, Innovate Thyself
So let’s descend from these dizzying heights to more prosaic concerns, and consider how innovation can be fostered within a certain group, such as an individual company. The scale is obviously smaller but I believe the principles still apply. Get everyone in your company talking to everyone else. And get them connected to their customers and the marketplace. Information flows, ideas are formed, and the company maintains its competitive edge.
OK, it’s easier said than done. And the upside is not necessarily immediately apparent, particularly for companies that do not compete on the basis of innovation (a mild tautology; if companies don’t compete on this basis, they probably don’t compete at all). It is understandable that companies would feel apprehensive at making large investments in organising their business to maximise the number of connections between ideas and people. Communications infrastructure is expensive, the required organisational changes can be difficult politically, and conventional management techniques are often just not up to the task of fostering innovation in this way.
Still, there is much in the way of low-hanging fruit which can give significant benefits in the rate of innovation throughout the company with little to no additional expenditure or organisational upheaval. Instead of grabbing this fruit and squeezing it for all the succulent innovative juices that are contained within, many companies (particularly large ones) are taking active measures with the explicit aim of reducing intra- and inter-company communications.
This was the gist of the Financial Times article I mentioned a few weeks ago. And as I tried to show in my post on the Virtual Furniture Police there are often no good reasons why these active measures are in place. Briefly, it is the misplaced desire for conformity and the illusion of security which result in only the lowest-common-denominator services supported in corporate computing environments.
The Home Network: Not Optional
For just about all of my professional life I have been pursuing various technology interests at home. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the fact that I had an internet connection to my home through a commercial ISP way before I worked at a company that provided internet access (and I had non-commercial net access way before that).
[Aside: I have worked with software developers and other IT workers — very capable people some of them — who do not have a computer at home. I just cannot understand this. How do they keep abreast of technology? Lunchtimes in front of slashdot? The <shudder/> Tuesday Australian IT section? But anyway.]
Tinkering at home almost always proves to be beneficial in my working life. Often it is the direct result of experimentation at home that results in me recommending a certain technology for use at work. I cannot count how many times this has happened. Sometimes there is a direct and immediate relationship between my home tinkering and a specific work problem. Sometimes the connection is made months or years later.
I’m sure there are many others who view the home as a testing ground for technologies at work. I know my father did, and that is how I got into computing in the first place. He brought home an Apple II to experiment with word processing, and I ended up spending more time on it than he did… (not word processing though)
It’s tempting to claim, although I admit I have no way of substantiating this, that the most significant advances in computing technology have been those that were adopted (or at least trailed) first in a home environment. Once trailed successfully in home environments, a new technology has far greater chance of being adopted in a wider context because some of the adoption risk has been mitigated.
It is certainly true that academic environments also stimulate the adoption of technology, but I don’t believe the effect is quite as pronounced. The reason being that people don’t transition from academia to a commercial environment very frequently. Whereas everyone makes the home to work transition on a daily basis.
The ability to trial new technology at home may be a characteristic that is unique to computing technology. It’s hard to imagine someone working for a sheet steel maker installing a new type of steel roller for trial purposes in their home.
The Network Is Safe … But At What Cost?
Home tinkering produces great results in my experience, and this is as it should be. But it is often frustrating to put the successful results into practice in a work context. There are the Virtual Furniture Police to contend with, and they will ensure that the cool instant messaging app you use at home will just not fly in a corporate environment. If you’re an MIS manager, that probably sounds like no loss. After all, these things are just more ways for viruses and other malware to enter the corporate walled garden, right?
Well, maybe. But like most truly useful innovations, these things have a tendency of infiltrating organisations despite the best intentions of the MIS gatekeepers (usually through port 80).
What is the cost of delaying the entry of a given technology into the organisation? What is the opportunity cost of the flow-on effects of this technology within the company? Perhaps someone would have developed some great new way of integrating the technology with the company’s product line? Or of integrating it into the customer communications channels? As James Burke’s many examples have shown, it is extremely difficult to predict how ideas will unfold in the future.
I reckon the answer to these questions depend on the degree to which the company’s success is tied to innovation and their competitive advantage. Can the hypothetical company afford to wait until all their customers, competitors, and suppliers have adopted a technology before allowing it into their own walled garden? Or will it be too late by then?
There are of course no easy answers to these questions, but in my experience the typical corporation is not even set up to ask them. All decisions about the corporate computing infrastructure are deferred to the MIS department which has no incentive to promote innovation within the company. Adoption of new technology actually hinders them from performing their job, in fact. And so we have the Virtual Furniture Police.
Trust, But Verify
In order to address this situation it is necessary to first separate the technology problems from other problems. This helps to ensure that, where possible, technology is not being used to address a behavioural problem. Employees downloading porn at work? Don’t try to block all the porn sites (which you won’t be able to do it anyway), just treat it as any other behavioural problem. You need to have management policies and procedures in place for anti-social behaviour at work anyway, so why not use them?
So the first step in adopting an innovation-friendly work environment should be to relieve the MIS department from the responsibility of being a nanny to the employees. Don’t even bother censoring the web. Instead you should be monitoring the web accesses of employees (for many reasons, including capacity planning) and the monitoring effort should support the management policies and procedures. The same applies to copyright violations on the corporate network, and other undesirable behaviour.
Viruses and other malware spreading through the corporate network are of course a major problem, and will spread no matter how restrictive the net access is. To some extent at least these are technology problems, and hence deserve technology solutions. The use of virus scanners, firewalls and such are of course appropriate to the task of protecting the corporate infrastructure. However, the vulnerability to these threats varies with individual expertise. So why not allow experienced individuals to relax the protection against malware when the situation calls for it? Again the mitigation here lies in monitoring activity, and the ability to react to adverse conditions, which the MIS department will have to do anyway.
It’s not hard to imagine how this could be extended to other functions of MIS departments along the same lines. Trust, but verify. The MIS department needs to monitor the critical network infrastructure and defend it where necessary against external threats. For the sake of innovation (and other reasons), employees deserve a greater level of trust than these external threats, but there is no reason why the same mitigation should not apply. It’s hard to imagine an employee — whether by accident or belligerence — affecting the corporate infrastructure any more adversely than most malware. At least, not in a way that could be guarded against by any preventative technology.
The Corporate Home Invasion
Described previously are measures which corporations can take to open up their network and allow innovation and communication to take place for very little incremental cost. There are additional benefits which can be reaped by investing only slightly more.
In a nutshell: provide high-speed internet connections and computers for your employees at home. These days the costs are very slight, and the benefits are many-fold. Firstly it promotes experimentation with technology as described above. Also it partially removes temptation to engage in undesirable behaviour on the corporate network. And lastly it enables employees to work more productively after hours. And they will. The productivity benefit alone will make this worthwhile.
Companies exist to strike a balance between risk and return. The entire existence of a company is due to individual and collective assessment of the potential for financial returns weighed against the risk of failure. The ability to reach a compromise between the two is crucial to its continued survival. Too much risk is obviously undesirable, but too little risk is also undesirable. The balance is struck not when risk is completely eliminated, but when it is balanced against the potential return.
I contend that through the structure of most corporations, the risk of technology adoption is not adequately balanced against the potential return of innovation.