Sharing Creativity: Talk given at 2012 ESIP Federation Summer Meeting.

Here is a talk I gave at the recent (Summer 2012) ESIP Federation meeting. Sharing Creativity:

I am hoping that this talk will lead to some conversations over the potential for virtual organizations to achieve, with more efficiency and effectiveness, a capacity for creativity and predictable innovation. This capacity—in large part due to Internet-enabled capabilities for coordination and collaboration— can, I believe, rival (at various scales) the capabilities of dedicated R&D facilities/programs such as Bell Labs and Xerox PARC on the corporate side, and the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program on the government side.

Bohr, Oppenheimer, Feynman, and Fermi: Key requisite variety of knowledge assembled for the Manhattan Project. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhattan_Project

Large research and development operations such as these were built as national laboratories, with hundreds or thousands of employees and forefront facilities. They were designed to assemble a critical mass of talent and direct this toward innovation. They were also enormously expensive: the Apollo program had cost more than $25 billion by 1973 (in 1973 dollars). The successful ones are rightfully famous.

Today’s top technology companies (Apple and Google, for example) often add to their innovation potential by buying forefront start-up companies, as much for their talent as for their technology. Their goal in a highly competitive market is to own enough talent, enough intelligence, enough creativity, to stay ahead of their rivals.

The basic business-school rule for improving the odds for successful innovation is to assemble a requisite variety of knowledge: a range of knowledge at least as large as the problem being tackled. The three ways to do this are the following: Hire it (add to your team); Grow it (reeducate your team); and, Buy it (purchase a rival company/team). All of these methods assume that you need to own the requisite variety of knowledge.

Science, on the main, has only one rival: the unknown. Scientists are relatively free to seek out new collaborators from anywhere. And, through Internet-based services, they are now enabled to become collaborators everywhere. This is one reason why the NSF has been promoting virtual organizations and research networks as the future of science collaboration (instead of building new centers at institutions). A good part of the potential that virtual organizations offer government and private funding agencies comes from a new logic for innovation: assemble and share the requisite variety of knowledge.  With the right sort of organizational governance and funding, a virtual organization can achieve what the older “think tank” R&D centers could: predictable, successful innovation.

There are some social aspects of the ESIP Federation that might be key to this capacity for creativity. These aspects are not secret, however, and can be fully copied and applied in other arenas. They are also not expensive (the Federation budget is remarkably small), but they are of great value, in that they have been worked upon by dozens of volunteers over the course of more than a decade.

Virtual organizations (VOs) come in many forms and sizes. The science of building and managing VOs is still being explored. There are many examples of early failures, and only a few examples that herald their potential success. Members of virtual organizations need to be sufficiently engaged to build collective intelligence. Take a look at the YouTube video and let me know what you think.

Use a virtual organization to borrow enough requisite variety to innovate in a data-rich world

Photo from Flickr, used with CC license. by http://www.flickr.com/photos/dominik99/

What can you do when your research team says, “This is way too complex.”

When your government agency or university laboratory looks to innovate in a world where multiple/large data inputs are coming on line, how can you stay ahead of the inherent complexity of the systems you are creating/interrogating? One way to look at this problem is through Ashby’s principle/law of requisite variety. A principle of cybernetic management, requisite variety notes that unless the control system has at least the variety of the environment it controls, it will fail. Which actually means that some part of the environment will be controlled elsewhere. Elsewhere is also where innovation happens; because unless you can corral the inherent variety of the problem you face, it will seem too complex for your team to innovate a response (Kofman [1]).  You can either go out and hire a bigger team, or you can borrow enough requisite variety just long enough to bring your own team up to speed. That is a great use for a virtual organization (VO).

Theorists of knowledge management have applied Ashby’s law in various modes, including a thread of interest in what is called a “learning organization” and mode of business communications management known as “systems thinking.” [There is a great amount of information about this available at the Society for Organizational Learning http://www.solonline.org/.]  The point they make is that the team you build to tackle a tough problem needs to have enough of a portfolio of knowledge and skills to address all parts of the problem. Not only that, but they need to communicate their skills and knowledge to one another so that each team member shares in this collective intelligence. Andrew Van de Ven put it this way, “Requisite variety is more nearly achieved by making environmental scanning a responsibility of all unit members, and by recruiting personnel within the innovation unit who understand and have access to each of the key environmental stakeholder groups or issues that affect the innovation’s development.”  (Van de Ven, 600).

Virtual organizations include online communities, research collaboratories, open source software programmer collectives, and other groups in a great variety of arenas and professions. What they offer is an open network of common interest and complementary talents. When your business or agency is looking to innovate in a world where data are more plentiful than insights (Abbott, 114) then it makes great sense, in terms of time and effort, to join a VO and gain enough requisite variety to conquer complexity and kickstart some innovation.

References

Abbott, Mark R. (2009) “A New Path for Science?” in The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery. Hey, Tony, Stewart Tansley, and Kristin Tolle, eds.  Pp. 111-116. Redmond: Microsoft Research.

Fred Kofman [1]   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ARZBxIzsKk&feature=relmfu

Van de Ven, Andrew H. (1986) “Central Problems in the Management of Innovation.” Management Science. Vol. 32. No. 5. (May.) pp. 590-607.