Want to Build a Culture of Innovation? Give Your Employees More Autonomy

culture of innovation

What kind of workplaces promote innovation?

You can expect employees to drive innovation in environments where there are fewer bureaucratic restraints and many opportunities for calculated risk. Innovation can only happen with a well-structured management system in place. Otherwise, experimentation can become too risky and great ideas might not get implemented.

In a survey by McKinsey, 94% of senior executives said that it’s the people and corporate culture that drive innovation.

Hierarchical structures where the decision-maker is difficult to reach and the decision-making process is not transparent do not foster innovation. That’s why employees need a degree of autonomy to execute actions and set their innovation goals.

Employee autonomy and accountability are the foundation for innovation.

These two values provide the essential framework that supports the innovation process among employees. An autonomous workplace gives individuals and teams ownership of their ideas and grants them the freedom to make key decisions.

Here are 5 tips to help you build a culture of innovation that gives your employees more autonomy.

Explain the ‘why’ behind the goal

The first step for managers who want to instill a greater autonomy among their employees is to explain why the goal assigned to the team has value. Most often, managers tell their employees what they need to do, failing to explain why it’s important or how it fits into the larger picture.

It’s hard to commit to a goal if you don’t see why it’s a good idea in the first place. The value of the goal might not be as obvious to your team as it is to you. So make sure to explain the ‘why’ behind the goal and help employees understand how their actions contribute to the overarching goals of the organization.

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The art of perceptive social bookmarking-Innovation through perception

Social bookmarking

Before the term Social Bookmarking became popular in the online world, the word Bookmarking existed and was used extensively for centuries.  Bookmarking, as the word suggests, has been used throughout history for marking one’s page on a book. So that the reader can come back later to find the same page with ease.  A simple and a useful practice, bookmarking has come a long way. Lot of cross pollination of ideas have happened in the past on the usage of this simple efficient practice.

Research from the popular Wikipedia says that earliest existing bookmarks in history date back to the 6th century. Bookmarks were extensively used on codices those days. Codices are book like structures which replaced the scrolls or rolls used in ancient times. The use of bookmarks further enhanced the reading ease of the codices which can be read at random rather than in a sequential pattern as in the rolls or scrolls.  It is said that these bookmarks were made up of ornamental leather those days. The earliest one was found in Egypt. Incidentally, Queen Elizabeth I of England was the first to own such a bookmark.

A bookmark on a manuscript
A bookmark on a manuscript

Simple as it seems, a very important one at that, the modern bookmarks come in all sorts of designs and a variety of materials are used for making it. Some of them are heavy paper, card board, ribbon, fabric, steel, wire etc. A lot of ornamental and embroidery designs are used in modern bookmarks.

The same concept is applied to bookmarking of a webpage URL. Bookmarking within a web context allows the user to add web links as bookmarks when they are browsing the web.  When a company or a social network as a service allows the users to further edit, annotate and share the web links to other users in a social network then this becomes ‘social bookmarking’.

Descriptions in the form of a context may be added to the web links. Some social networks allow users to tag their web links with specific vocabulary for later usage. These shared vocabularies are often called “Folksonomies”. Some social networks also facilitate online collaboration for shared content.

Online social bookmarking have their origins at the computational sciences division at NASA. The team there developed a system called ‘web tagger’.  Ever since they presented this at the International WWW conference held in Santa Clara in 1997, social bookmarking spread and became popular. Many online companies started social bookmarking services. Some companies rose to prominence and others eventually had shutdown owing to other reasons.

Nevertheless, the benefits are many from organizing and retrieving webpages for later use to simply browsing on certain categories and tags and sharing information with other users. Social bookmarking has been part of the mainstream social networks for a long time and here to stay.

Lately, there has been abuse of using social bookmarking purely as a tool to update web links for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes alone. On the contrary, even though such a practice adds  positive benefits of SEO but it does not add any meaning or purpose to the concept of bookmarking and nor does it add any value to it.

The World Wide Web (WWW) is undeniably, the single biggest consumer system in the world where billions of people search, interact, transact and share content every single day. At the fundamental level, each and every web page is connected to every other page through hyperlinks. Added to this is the algorithm of power law distribution of hubs and authority which makes the search engines effective.  Such scenario lends itself positively to the use of social bookmarking for the update of web links.  The contention here is that these web link updates cannot be abused at any cost.

The art of perceptive social bookmarking in social networks

To overcome this abuse and to bring in fair practice and trust among users, Work Monkey Labs has launched an initiative to make the web a better place. “The way I see it” web application was developed and born to bring this initiative to light.  This is a first of kind application still in its nascent stages and in its first release.

‘The way I see it’ is a unique social bookmarking tool and a practice which uses human perception.

We define it with our own term “perceptive social bookmarking”. An innovation from Work Monkey Labs.

Quoting from the genius Leonardo Da Vinci, “All our knowledge has its origins in perceptions”.

A child's drawing
A child’s drawing

For example, when you initially look at a child’s drawing for the first time, nothing would make sense immediately with all the mashed up lines and crosses. Only if you see clearly, you will know what the kid is trying to communicate through the drawing.

Perceptive social bookmarking uses pictograms or symbols along with a context to bookmark webpage URL’s.  When a user perceives (Sees or senses) a pictogram or a symbol to be right and attaches it to a webpage URL along with a context, a new insight is born. We have a new interpretation and a new understanding. This further results in successive iteration of newer ideas when passed on to other users.

Aldous Huxley was a celebrated futurist thinker and philosopher during his time and even now as well. Huxley in his widely popular book “The art of seeing” in 1942 gives the world a clear insightful formula.

“Sensing + Selecting + Perceiving = Seeing “

Aldous Huxley was the author of 46 books. The most noted among them was the “The art of seeing”. Huxley had contacted a degenerative eye disease at the age of 16. His condition was so worse that one of his eyes had a limited or rarely had any perception of light and the other eye could read the biggest letters in the eye chart only from 10 feet away. His condition in today’s world could be treated easily with an antibiotic. But in those days it was a mishap.

In his book “The art of seeing” Huxley beautifully describes all the eye exercises he had done and the efforts he had put in for regaining his sight. Through his book,

Huxley remarkably conveys a wonderful insight that “seeing is mostly the result of clear thinking”.

In order to have a clear vision, Huxley talks about a visual path. The visual path consists of the three parts as in the formula above. Let’s look at them one by one.

  1. Sensing: Sensing means allowing enough light to enter your eyes and you are able to see immediate objects. There is no mental processing here. The mind has not registered it yet and only the brain has sensed the image.
  2. Selecting: – Selecting relates to more fully sensing the object or the scene, identifying it and classifying it. This also points to isolating the object within the area or scene where the sharpest vision takes place.
  3. Perceiving: – Relates to finding a meaning out of a selected scene or an object and not merely observation. Your mind is giving a chance to store this image and retrieve it for long term use. We are basically making a sense of the isolated image or scene.

The Importance of visual images

We would like to emphasize again.

 “All our knowledge has its origins in perceptions”- Leonardo Da vinci

Whether you are a student or a veteran in visual global communication programs, there is always a great importance that is laid on visual communication.

man fashion
Man and fashion

Since they were invented, words somehow over the centuries have taken dominance over pictures to communicate complex thoughts and descriptions. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg can be attributed to one of the reasons to this widespread usage of words.  As you may very well know nowadays, pictures and symbols are mostly used in sign boards and in graphical diagrams.

A more common aspect we can all easily relate to is that words are used part of reference books and text books and they are all part of the curriculum. Pictures are not part of the individual’s education.

But as you can see, over the past several years with the invention of television and the spread of the web, images and pictures have once again became part of the mainstream. They have become so ubiquitous that you cannot avoid them. However, with all these changes it is important to remember that visual images have the power to persuade, influence and convince people.

Messages should combine both words and images equally well and give respect to both.

We see images everywhere. We are constantly fed with unrelenting set of images on magazines, movies, storefronts and advertising.  We see messages which are tailored and mediated to suit our tastes rather than messages which are genuine and authentic. But with technological advancements including the usage of web 2.0, there would be innovations in the effective use of both pictures and words for all kinds of possibilities.

We have come to a stage where we can confidently say that it is not enough that you write, one needs to know how to collate pictures as well print designs for the web.

Most of us if not all of us would have seen the headline “America under attack” flashed on many Television News channels on the day when United Airlines flight 175 was hijacked and exploded into the World Trade Centre. And more so ghastly, was the images of Tsunami which hit the shores of Indian Ocean which reminded us of the fury and destruction of nature.

These stories conjure up memories and they communicate powerful images that we hold it in our collective memory. These images however have remained permanent but then when we see newer images, we make newer connections and impressions and we make comparisons as well.

The science behind it is that visual images and symbols rely on eyes and the brain to interpret sensory information. When the mind is active, energetic and curious it always remembers images in innovative ways. The mind develops visual cues leading to newer ideas.

All these visual images are interpreted by the brain in many ways and they have both literal and symbolic components. It so happens that when we revisit an image, something new comes out of it and that’s how new ideas are born.

When the right images are attached to the content, the content becomes memorable. They communicate strong emphasizing symbolic and literal messages. The audience will understand more at what they are looking at.

So what we are trying to say is that perception is the key to unlock our understanding, our interpretations and newer ideas. This leads to insight and insight leads to innovation.

Endnote

For further resources, please visit the link below.

Social bookmarking from Wiki

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Diffusion of innovation and social networks

idea rocket

The diffusion of innovation has been very important concept over the decades not just for product marketers but also in the field of new product development, R&D  and understanding social networks.

The statement, “If you want to increase the adoption rate or the public response to a new idea or innovation, it is better that individuals move away from weaker and easy to form ties and relationships” intrigued me. I wanted to explore why ? and so this article.

The scientific definition for diffusion is the process by which “molecules intermingle as a result of their kinetic energy and random motion”.

The word ‘diffusion’ is used more in conjunction with “Molecular Diffusion” but here we are talking about diffusion of a different order. It is the “Diffusion of Innovation”.  This theory was first popularized by sociologist Everett M Rogers.

The basic premise is that for new ideas to get adopted, it takes time even it has obvious advantages. Usually, there is a gestation period from the time they are introduced into the market, to the time they are widely adopted by the public be it cars, refrigerators or industrial pumps.

The challenges faced by many businesses is how to speed up this diffusion rate. The challenges are similar in all market driven innovation campaigns.

Can social networks and social media help speed up this rate of diffusion?

The answer is yes.

I stumbled upon this excellent book “Diffusion of Innovation” by Everett M Rogers, which talks at length about diffusion of innovation and its various influences. I will be referring some content from it. A definition of innovation from the book.

Diffusion is defined as a process by which innovation is communicated over time to general public belonging to a social network or a social structure.

Here communication over time means essentially adoption. Diffusion messages are about “newness” in an idea. The newness creates excitement and makes the messages travel further. The newness is what gives the diffusion a special character.

Social change occurs when diffusion happens.

The insights for social change is that, people do not change to adopt to innovations. Innovations change themselves as they go through multiple iterations to fit into the needs and behavior of the people.

The rate of spread of such innovations is more pronounced when there are conversations happening about the new idea among people, peers and within a social network.

Variables that determine the diffusion of innovation

Rate of adoption is the speed at which the innovation is adopted. There are many factors which affect that rate. The table below shows the important attributes.

Various attributes for Diffusion of Innovation

Diffusion of innovation
Various attributes for Diffusion of Innovation

Our focus in this article would be more on the effects of communication and the social system on the rate of adoption for the diffusion of innovation.

For various adopter categories and for  its detailed explanation. Please refer the below video.

Apart from the five perceived attributes, the communication system used has an effect. It is a known fact these days that rate of adoption is quite high if we use social networks like Facebook or Twitter for diffusion rather than interpersonal networks.

The social norms and sharing structure also affect the rate of adoption.  When opinion leaders or opinion organizations adopt, which normally happens anywhere between 3% and 16% of the adoption , it has a greater impact and speeds up the response rate. Further increase in response and adoption happens when there is ‘critical mass’ that swings positively and moves the diffusion process forward.

We need to understand that

The main idea that drives the diffusion process is the interpersonal communication with peers about an innovation.

The above statement holds good and we will explain that through an example. The decision whether or not to adopt to an innovation depends on the interactions an individual has with others. There is considerable amount of subjectivity involved as the information flows through interpersonal networks.

To understand the diffusion process we need to understand the nature of the social networks.

Watch this video below which explains the Diffusion of Innovation in an animated form.

Examples – Diffusion of innovation

The example below talks about the use and spread of the medical drug ‘Tetracycline’ in 1966 among doctors. Even though the example is an old one, it is still relevant today.

Tetracycline is a useful antibiotic which is used by doctors in their daily practice. The researchers, James. S. Coleman and his team used various network indicators to assess the diffusion process which were far more important than individual characteristics of age and socio- economic states.

Useful Note: James . S . Coleman is an American sociologist. He was a pioneer in Mathematical sociology and strongly influenced the American goverment in its education policy through his brilliant yet controversial reports.

The findings were that the doctors with more network links were found to be far innovative in adopting the new idea than their colleagues who were isolated and not connected.

With only just two months after the introduction of the new medicine, 15% of the doctors adopted it and in 4 months it reached 50 %.

The degree of network inter-connectedness was an important predictor in the rate of adoption. These doctors had better communication channels and more income. The following S curve shows the rate of adoption of the medical drug.

The S shaped diffusion curve is usually created by the rate of adoption by the members of a social network.

S curve and Diffusion of Innovation

S curve and Diffusion of Innovation
S curve and Diffusion of Innovation

The rate of adoption forthe interconnected doctors immediately shot high whereas for the isolated doctors it took a straight line. The figure shows the S curve for the interconnected doctors. The S curve did not happen for the isolated doctors who did not have peer level contacts.

The presence of peer level contacts for the interconnected doctors allowed for subjective evaluations of the innovation speeding up the rate of adoption.

I couldn’t stop but to start writing about the diffusion of QWERTY keyboard and the non-diffusion of the Dvorak keyboard when I read about it a couple of weeks back. I was compelled to write this and wanted to explain how interestingly the diffusion of innovation works with some examples.

Let me revisit a bit on what “Diffusion” means within the context of innovation. Diffusion means social change. As quoted by Everret M Rogers in his book “Diffusion of Innovations”, it is defined as the process by which change occurs in the very functioning and structure of the social network or the social system.

Rogers, further quips that the word ‘diffusion’ is often used when there is a spontaneous spread of ideas. A better word that other authors and researchers use is ‘dissemination’ which is more controlled, directed and managed. Rogers contends that he uses diffusion for both planned and spontaneous spread of new ideas.

Let’s look at the below example.

Why the Dvorak keyboard was not diffused?

It is sad that the QWERTY keyboard is widely accepted and used world over to the Dvorak keyboard. This QWERTY keyboard, we so commonly and unsuspectingly use it in our mobile phones, laptops and desktops is such a bad design that we hardly notice, as we have got used to it and we became habituated to it.

It was quite surprising to know that the QWERTY keyword which was introduced a century back in 1873 was used to deliberately slow down the typists and bring in inefficiencies.

By the way, QWERTY is the first six letters of your keyboard that you use today. Please find the picture below.

The bad design of the QWERTY keyboard
The bad design of the QWERTY keyboard

In the year 1932, professor August Dvorak of the University of Washington, conducted elaborate time-motion studies including filming people on how they use keyboards, invented a much more efficient keyboard arrangement called the “Dvorak” keyboard.

Useful Note: You can view the superior design of Dvorak’s keyword at this MIT webpage and a brief note of August Dvorak.

The Dvorak keyboard had a superior key arrangement and design. It had the letters AOEUIDHTN…S across the home row and was quite effective in reducing the strain on the typists.

The Dvorak keyboard reduces the inefficiencies by introducing an arrangement of keys, where 90% of the typing was done on the middle row, 20% on the upper row and 10% on the lower row.

Moreover, typing rhythm was facilitated by introducing vowel letters on the left side of the keyboard and consonants on the right hand side of the keyboard. This key shift arrangement resulted in a 56 % finger load to the right hand and 44% to the left hand (as we know that 90 % of the public are right handed). Further rhythm was introduced when successive keystrokes fell on either hands. So, if one hand is moving to press the key, the other hand gets ready to press the next key. Excellent isn’t it.

On the other hand, the QWERTY keyword was used and introduced to prevent jamming on an archaic typewriter design. The design was awkward no doubt and was introduced to slow down the typists speed. QWERTY keyboard was known to cause Carpel tunnel syndrome but still it is widely used in the present day world.

The reason some say is because of the vested interests of manufacturers, product design and marketing people to promote the use of QWERTY keyboard and the rest is history.

What we need to understand here is that, superior design and innovation does not mean it will automatically lend itself to higher rate of adoption or propel diffusion.  Diffusion of innovation has not happened in the case of Dvorak keyboard and what could be the reasons?

The ‘hum’ of the refrigerator

Another example to illustrate this unfortunate situation is the “Refrigerator hum” which really fascinated me.

We all have refrigerators at home. Our present day refrigerators use a motor (and so the hum!) to run a compressor. This compressor condenses the liquid releasing the heat into the surrounding environment which the liquid had absorbed previously inside the refrigerator before it got vaporized.

Before this system got widely used, there was a superior design which was the “gas refrigerator”. The gas refrigerator design used the ammonia refrigerant. The refrigerant was vaporized by a gas flame. The vaporized ammonia dissolves with water and cools the system.

Then why didn’t this simple design make it to the masses. The diffusion of this superior design innovation has not happened. People say largely it is because of the large corporations like GE and others who have heavily invested in the R&D for further development of compressor motor technology refrigerator for business profits and partnerships and little did they care about the superior design of the market place.

Even though the “gas refrigerator’ technology was launched in parallel, it couldn’t simply compete with the huge advertisement budgets of the large corporations.

The diffusion of the gas refrigerator just simply did not happen.

So what actually runs behind this diffusion process?  How do we get to know which innovation or idea will diffuse spontaneously or in a planned manner. Nobody can predict accurately. From what we understand it is in the way the social network behaves. Which is again dependent on the prevailing times and culture.

But having said that, it does not mean we cannot manage it. We can nurture it and give it the right environment for diffusion and growth.

Diffusion of innovation can be facilitated when the idea or innovation is introduced in the right social network and through a right decision making process.

How does the ‘Innovation decision process’ work?

On record, the process is like any other activity where the information is actively processed for informed decision making.  Here, the uncertainty in adopting a new technology or innovation is considerably reduced through this process and the individual clearly knows the merits and demerits of using such an innovation.

Through this process, we ask the following relevant questions which helps the user in making the decision.

  1. What is the innovation all about?
  2. How does it work?
  3. Why does it work?
  4. What is the impact?
  5. What are the benefits?

For now, we will look at how some innovations are different from the other and how do the masses perceive them. Perceptions about a product make a huge difference in the social system. Not all innovations and ideas are the same and cannot be analyzed in the same manner. It all depends on how people perceive them and hence the different rates of adoption.

brain with idea
Keep working on the innovative decision process

Image credit : Designed by Freepik

1.The competitive performance factor:  Competitive performance is all about how an idea or innovation fares with respect to others in the same genre as well its perception relative to the previous idea from the same genre. The other important factors are the social prestige and the convenience of use. Financials alone cannot tip it but then it is the ‘what is in it for me’ factor that matters a lot for the individual and also for a large section of people.

2.Fitting into the prevailing norms: The idea or innovation should abide to the existing norms, values, past experiences prevalent in the social system or social network at that point in time. Adoption would be difficult if not impossible in societies and countries where innovation or the idea simply does not fit in. The prevailing values and the culture of the social system must be satisfied and accepted first before the idea to be adopted or the diffusion of innovation to happen fast.

3.Easy to understand and use: If a new idea or innovation is easy to understand and use it will be quickly adopted. More complex system will be slowly adopted.

4.Experimentation and testing: The new idea or innovation should be experimented, tested and explored. If it is explorable, then it is easily adopted by the audience.The idea or innovation should provide an opportunity for people to learn or give them a learning experience.

5. The visible results factor: The new idea or innovation should give visible results to the audience. It should also be result oriented and should be clearly understood by all. Visibility of the results further fuels discussion and “iteration of successive ideas”.

It is an accepted norm that when a new innovation or idea has the above attributed then its success rate and adoption rate is high as well.

The Segway PT vehicle example

The Segway product is a good example of how a newly introduced product innovation has become a victim of socially controlled policies and inadequacies of present day society at large.

The Segway vehicle was introduced as an innovative design way back in 2001. You must have seen the Segway vehicle used in some big time Hollywood movies in R&D labs, University campuses and shopping malls. Even now you would see people using them in some of the shopping malls in your countries.

The Segway PT is a battery powered two wheeled vehicle equipped with computers, sensors and motors to balance itself. The vehicle moves forward and backward by shifting the weight forward or backward with a turn handle for turning the vehicle.

The Segway vehicle
The Segway vehicle

Image credit: Pixabay

I have taken the below account on Segway vehicle’s legal status in Czech from the Wikipedia. The legal status and the usage of the vehicle is still unclear in that country.  A rider on Segway PT is seen as a pedestrian and is seen on par with pedestrians with Roller skates and the likes. The transport department in Czech see the Segway PT as ineligible to fulfill the requirements of full-fledged road vehicle. The Segway PT is still not allowed in some parts of Prague.

In Germany, the Segway PT is supposed to have red light and a number plate at the back.  Whilst in Denmark, the SegwayPT is classified as Mopeds.

As we can see the restrictions that are imposed on a innovative product differ from country to country based on the prevailing social norms and culture of that place.

Connections among individuals

Usually, individuals tend to link among others who are similar to them and have the same likes and dislikes. These links are easy to obtain with least effort. The irony is that, such easy to form connections are not the best way for the diffusion of innovation to happen. In contrast, if the connections are geographically and socially distant then such connections are usually stronger in carrying information about new ideas and innovations.

If individuals want to be innovative in adopting new ideas they will have to move away from the weak ties of easily formed links and connections.

Social learning theory

Another important thing is the aspect of social learning theory within a social network for the diffusion of innovation. This has direct consequences on the rate of adoption of a new idea.  The social learning theory was popularized by Stanford University professor, Albert Bandura in the year 1977.

Useful note: Albert Bandura, is ranked  as the fourth most cited Psychologist in the world behind B F Skinner, Sigmund Frued and Jean Piaget.

Social learning theory advocates that the individual learns through observation. By observing the behavior of others, the individual likes to do something similar.

The observation need not be a blind imitation but an informed and organized extract of the essential elements. The same is applied in one’s behavior.

If someone publicly displays, usually a celebrity and gets a rewarded for it then that behavior becomes a norm or a learning for others to follow.

Individuals change their external behavior as a result of learning from others. The same happens with the diffusion of innovations as well. The ‘network link’ and ‘interpersonal networks’ are the main reasons for such diffusion.

A beautiful note from one of the scholars goes like this. It says that the

Diffusion model looks at the society as a ‘huge learning system’ where everyone is observing and learning from each other.They change their behavior based on others and yet they behave and operate independently of one another.

Endnote

For further resources on this subject, please find the links below.

  1. Diffusion of Innovation on the Wiki
  2. Smart insights– Diffusion of Innovation
  3. Life and times of James. S. Coleman

Image Credit : Selected by Freepik

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Designing social media platforms for knowledge sharing

Social media platforms designing

Social media platforms or  social media network, knowledge sharing has been the lifeline by which people interact, self-organize and form a context.

Designing social media platforms for knowledge sharing has always been a challenge. So the question is, can Social capital come to the rescue?  An analysis of the Social capital framework within the organization or a social set up provide us the answers?

Useful Note:  By platform, we mean the computing platform and the necessary software code, rules and provisions required for running it.

A  year 2003 article on  The Economist “A question of wealth” talks about  “How Nations and organizations become wealthy ?  Harvard University professor Robert Putnam wrote a very famous influential essay “Bowling alone” where he says Americans would be far more unlikely to join the clubs and social circles in the 1990’s than they would in the 1950’s.  He came to this conclusion after noting the decline in ‘Bowling league” memberships in America.  Though this has been accepted uncritically, the basic and proven assumption is that all

All human beings by nature are social animals.

Sociologists believe that there is the hand of the growing field of Social Capital which sways wealth, power and status in favor of nations and organizations which have a high degree of Social capital with an emphasis on “Trust and Community” Let us explore this further and bring it to the context of designing social media platforms for knowledge sharing.

We have been seeing time and again that traditional tools for knowledge sharing and knowledge management have been failing the test of acceptance and “institutionalization”.

Useful Note: Wikipedia describes institutionalization as a process of embedding a social norm or a social behavior within a large organization or a social group.

Irrespective of where they are used, for in-house purposes within an organization or as an independent tool within the consumer web space, their acceptance is low.  Systems for knowledge sharing cannot be designed from a technological perspective alone. We cannot just look down upon the social, informal and non-canonical nature of our interactions in social set ups and as they happen in other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Useful Note: To understand more on social media networks, their definition and benefits please read our article on this blog:The promise of Collaboration-using social media in organizations

We have to embed the knowledge sharing system within an existing social setup of which they are a part. Ignoring the social side of the network has been one of the key factors for the fall and resistance to such knowledge sharing tools.

Then how can such knowledge sharing systems be designed? The concept of “Social capital” and its analysis has been hailed as the best path forward by many contemporary researchers and practitioners in this field. We will look into their work in a little while from now as we move along. But before that we will understand, the current challenges to the design and development of knowledge sharing systems using social media platforms.

Current challenges of social media platforms for knowledge sharing

The importance and the value of managing knowledge and sharing can never be understated. We are living in a globalized world with increasing complexity. With geographically dispersed teams, the complexity increases. There is a saying that “the intellectual capital of a firm is far greater than the asset base and the intrinsic value it has”. There is of-course the competitive advantage attached to it.

But getting a good foothold and grasp of managing knowledge and sharing is critical. The challenges from an organizational perspective usually come from

  1. The IT function- a key role player in facilitating knowledge sharing.
  2. Management commitment, priorities and alignment.
  3. Individual learning Vs. Community learning.

1.The key role of the IT function

The challenge is inherent in the fact that IT can support and improve knowledge sharing but it ignores the social conditions that facilitate knowledge sharing among groups. The successful outcomes of such systems come from paying attention to appropriate social context, norms, position, reward systems and leadership.

IT cannot be independent. It has to be embedded within the social norm. If it is not so, then it is a challenge and presents itself in various pockets of resistance within the groups.

Brown and Duguid in their book “Social life of information” wrote that

“Knowledge only has its use, if it can be related to people”.

People would like to know the context from whom it was originated and why? This provides the important “Meta knowledge”. This is also one of the reasons why recorded knowledge is not reused.

Tacit knowledge which exists in people’s minds need not be codified into structured explicit knowledge. This is where social media platforms come to the rescue. It supports elicitation of knowledge in its various forms and fills those gaps. Meta knowledge cannot be recorded in intranets or repositories they need social media platforms.

Huysman and De witt wrote in their book “Knowledge sharing in practice” that

People want to share experiences with other people with whom they look up for support and where there is trust, safety and mutual respect.

2.Management commitment and priorities

(If you are looking to build your own independent social media platform, then you can skip this section, this section is geared more towards in-house usage)

One thing is quite clear for successful knowledge sharing is that this initiative has to be a win-win situation. Increasingly, this goes in for a toss as the management from a top-down approach exert the need to control and monitor knowledge.

The very act of extracting knowledge from knowledgeable and experienced workers, builds resistance. But actually, this is an attempt to manage knowledge, make it more effective and available to others.

There is also a notion that when a core employee leaves, he or she takes away the core competency away from them.

There is a universally known fact that “employees don’t want to share knowledge anyway”. Management priorities of improving knowledge sharing is good. It is in the right direction but it has to be in a win-win situation.

3.Individual vs Community learning

Traditionally, so far what we have seen and still remains largely is that knowledge sharing is for individual gain and learning is supported at the level of individuals.

Most of the repository systems are built with this focus to enhance the flow of information to individuals. But what we are forgetting to acknowledge is that most knowledge is shared and generated within a social context and setup.

Learning these days cannot be separated from the social community. It is very much intrinsic to the existence of such knowledge that is generated. So knowledge sharing tools must support social relationships that exist among people and include it as part of the design requirements.

In the next section, we will take an introductory look into the framework for designing social media platforms for knowledge sharing and the ‘socio-technique’ analysis on which the social media platforms need to be designed.

An introduction to the Social capital framework

Existing research and several pioneering authors and practitioners have always been pointing out to the multidisciplinary aspects when designing social media platforms or social media networks. The disciplines range from Mathematics, Information technology, Economics, Sociology, Cognitive psychology and Ethnography.

From an IT perspective, when you want to create a sharing network, the primary aspect is to create an intranet which has 1. A shared information workspace – something like ‘sharepoint’ from Microsoft for example. 2. A communication space- which can use asynchronous mode like email or synchronous mode like video conferencing for people to share and bounce thoughts and ideas.  3. A collaboration space – like a groupware, workflow system where people can cooperate and complete work together.

The idea here is that the IT sharing network or the intranet and the social media platform need to converge and exist together. When such co-existence happens then that is the domain of the socio-technique and in other words, it is the social media platform which has knowledge sharing embedded in it that is coming to fruition.

There is a tremendous “interplay” between the social and technical aspects. This interplay is necessary and also continuously evolving. Understanding this interplay is a challenge and also the key success factor.

The development, implementation and use of such social media platforms needs to be flexible in order to adapt it to a particular environment, this makes it complex as well.

It is complex, due to a concept called ‘Drifting’. Social media platforms have the tendency to evolve and drift. It creates its own path, character and stance over time.

Useful Note: Drifting as a social concept, is the process of slowly moving away and taking one’s own path and self-organizing and evolving.

It has the capacity to self –organize, adds the human element of “Context” in all in its interactions, sharing and spreading in its usage.

Ethnography and its influence

Another important sphere of influence in the design of social media platforms for knowledge sharing is the subject of Ethnography. Ethnography, which is the study of cultures and their mutual understanding and differences does give us a method to this complexity.

But then the argument is that even though Ethnography carries out detailed studies on the work processes and their cultural settings and yet the gap exists when IT takes up the requirements for designing social media platforms for knowledge sharing.

Possible reasons are the complexity involved in translating the requirements and also we are dealing with two sets of people (IT function and the people working on Ethnography) who are divergently different in their approach, thoughts and ideas.

Perhaps the most important concept in understanding the social capital framework came from Bressand and Distler. This brings us to light when designing social media platforms we will have to study the underlying current of “Info-culture” in any set up.

Many a times, IT designers ignore this when designing an knowledge sharing system and analyze the ‘infrastructure’ and the ‘info-structure’. Infrastructure stands for all the physical hardware and software. The ‘info –structure’ is the formal organization, governing rules, formal business processes, hierarchies and strategy by which people exchange information and knowledge. The ‘info-culture’ is the social relationships and the culture that is prevalent in the group. It is social norm of how people relate to one another.

Many researchers at the forefront of the design for a new social media platforms express the need for an analysis of the ‘info-culture’ of the organizational setup. This is mainly argued as the third most important aspect in the analysis for design and not to be ignored.

The cultural norms, social relationships, safety and trust are the key concepts that need analysis. It is surprising that not much has been written about this in the contemporary literature for requirement analysis for design of social media platforms for knowledge sharing.

The social capital framework provides a promising potential to design social media platforms for success and acceptance.

What is Social capital? And how do we acknowledge it?

Social capital in social media platforms
The question of social capital

We might have heard about Physical capital, Financial capital, Economic capital and also Human capital.  A relatively newer concept, Social capital has been in the news and has been researched and talked about a lot.

Social Capital is the sum total of the trust, social norms, and most importantly the mutual and shared understanding you have in a social relationship.

Social capital can then be used effectively for knowledge sharing. Increasingly, people have to come to know that social capital forms one of the important aspects for determining an organization’s economic growth.

Physical capital and Financial capital determine the economic prospects and growth of the organization in the short term. They are hugely dependent on the vagaries of various global movements and indications. It is the Social capital aspect through its economic actors, the relationships they foster with each other determines the long term economic growth and development of the organization.

Human capital on one hand looks at the individual abilities but –

Social capital utilizes the collective abilities of all the actors on the social media platform.

Needless to say, Social capital removes the bias of individual learning.

It is emphasized that the use of Social capital analysis in designing and developing social media platforms for knowledge sharing greatly reduces, if not altogether eliminates the risks and challenges posed by managerial and technological ones, which have seen earlier. A good degree of diagnosis and analysis of a group’s social setup, its Social capital and improving the Social capital level of that group will greatly enhance the adoption and acceptance of the social media platforms.

People will have more opportunity to share knowledge within themselves and will be motivated to do so even as they have abilities and the capacity to share knowledge (Tacit knowledge as well). These are some of the elements and structural underpinnings which we need to understand for analyzing Social capital for designing social media platforms.

As the trend moves from individual learning to community based learning, there is a growing importance and acceptance of knowledge communities within organizations and outside. They form a trust circle where people can safely exchange knowledge and collaborate with each other creating an environment for innovation to happen. Such open collaborative networks thrive on the degree of Social capital that exists within that group or community

Useful note: ICKN (Intelligent collaborative knowledge networks), from the MIT center for collective intelligence, global think tank does lot of research on this subject.

Nahapiet and Ghosal in their book “Knowledge sharing in practice “ introduce three dimensions of Social capital namely, Structural, Cognitive and Relational.

Structural analysis of Social capital points to the network ties, the current organizational structure and also to network configurations.

Cognitive analysis points to the aspects of shared language, shared abilities and similar stories.

And finally, Relational analysis points to the aspects of social norms, trust and motivation.

Another interesting dimension was introduced by Adler and Kwon.  They talk about Social capital classification in terms of opportunity, ability and motivation.

If we analyze both these approaches, we are talking about

  1. “Who shares” and “How do they do that” this is from a structural opportunity standpoint. Research points that people within the same social hierarchy, create dense networks within themselves and there is opportunity for everyone to contribute within this group. “How do they do that” is something that needs to be explored. For example:- Top senior Managers working in MNCs form a leadership group within the organization.
  1. “What is shared” this is from a cognitive ability standpoint. People with similar stories in their lives, connect. People also share and connect based on abilities. They will be able to offer advice and suggestion to others with whom they can relate to.
  1. “Why and when” this is from a relational motivational standpoint. Social norms, trust and safety play a huge role and influence an entire gamut of people. Evidence and research proves that there is enough motivation among people to willingly contribute knowledge and suggestions based on trust and safety.

Simple requirement analysis for social media platforms

When we are doing a requirement analysis and information gathering the following table helps us in this task.

The table gives us a framework to start the requirements gathering with the research questions asked, important elements to consider, the various dimensions and the levels involved. Through this framework one can understand the stakeholders involved, the support and feedback needed from them.

A small note here, the stakeholders need not be within the same organization. If you are designing independent social media platforms for knowledge sharing, the stakeholders are much more diverse and heterogeneous. This makes the design much more interesting.

Requirements analysis table
Requirements analysis framework for social media platforms

As discussed earlier, an analysis of Social capital provides an in-depth functionality that needs to be embedded into the social media platforms for knowledge sharing.

Structural standpoint

When we look at the structural dimension of social capital, the focus is more on network density in terms of the number of actors who are connected to each other. Studying such density would reveal “with whom people share knowledge” and “Who shares with who” and how do they do it.

If there is a requirement gap we bridge the holes functionally so that the structural map reaches far and wide and as well group penetration. For example: the concept of groups is so popular in Linkedin. The stronger the ties, they will share tacit information.

Cognitive standpoint

From a cognitive stand point, we analyze the group’s ability to understand each other and whether they have shared mutual understanding, shared stories and similar problems in life and career. If such ties are stronger and if their cognitive intelligence is high, they will be able to share tacit information as well.

A useful note: – Not much attention is given to this dimension. It’s good to lower the cognitive barrier, provide functionality in such a way that “like minds attract like minds”. Only if the cognitive barrier is low, people will be able to share their personal stories on social media platforms otherwise they will look at sharing the same on a one-on-one basis, face to face.

If there is an expert, his expertise requires validation and we contact him in person to validate his expertise. The same should happen on a social media platform as well where people will have access to such tools and they will transfer tacit knowledge where it is required.

We need to also understand that this requirements gathering also has to take into account the culture of the setup. Apart from standard methodologies for gathering information from hierarchical setups, methodologies used in Ethnography and pattern recognition supports the overall process.

Relational standpoint

In a relational dimension, we need to understand that whether members are motivated and are willing to share.

We have to address the question “What is in it for me to share?” This provides the motivational part along with shared norms, trust, safety and respect. Not answering this question makes  social media platforms fail the test of institutionalization.

When there is “reciprocity”, then there is a no “motivational barrier”. The systems should facilitate or have such provisions for reciprocal response functionality. A good example is the “Facebook like”. Other things to take care are status differences, respect and trust.

Trust is one of the most important factors. If there is mutual trust then there is easier knowledge sharing, tacit as well. When people want to learn and want others to succeed as well, then such high motivation creates mutual trust which is highly beneficial to the success of social media platforms.

The stronger the ties between individuals, the greater the sharing of tacit knowledge happens. Sharing tacit knowledge requires a high degree of trust.

Finally, existing research reveal only this much. For further analysis and greater success, we need to carry out ethnographic studies for knowledge sharing. Appropriating IT to a specific social set up or organizational group is a challenge.

So far, not much has been written about how “IT will be used”. We once again comeback to the same saying that social media platforms usage is evolving and it is evolving culture and attitude. Groups constantly self-organize and we need to be cognizant of this fact when we are designing social media platforms for knowledge sharing.

I would like to thank the following authors for their in-depth research. I have referred the following books below. You can buy them on Amazon as well.

  1. Social life of information, Burn and Duguid
  2. Webwork information seeking and knowledge work on the www, Choo c Detlor and Turnbull
  3. Groupware and teamwork by Ciborra
  4. Managing codified knowledge, Sloan management review, By Zack M.H
  5. Knowledge sharing in practice , Huysman M.H and D de Witt.
  6. “Why organizations don’t know what they know”, Cognitive and motivational factors affecting transfer of practice in beyond knowledge management.
  7. The role of tacit knowledge in group innovation, Leonard D, S Sensiper.

Further reading resources.

  1. Ethnographic research within corporate environment – Harvard Business Review
  2. Swarm creativity blog
  3. A good resource on Social capital – Social capital research
  4. Mind boggling and Comprehensive data on the usage of social media and digital trends for 2016 from “We are Social”-Singapore

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Collaboration of ideas through knowledge brokering

leap through knowledge brokering

knowledge brokering- Summary

Curious as I was, it was first time I heard about the concept called the “knowledge brokering cycle”. I was pleasantly stunned and surprised that much has already been researched and written about this technique of new idea generation process. Never the less, this a best practice followed the world over.

Knowledge brokering helps us make those leaps from old ideas to new ideas and apply them to newer contexts in an easier fashion.

I am talking about the article “Building an innovation factory” written by Andrew Hargadon and Robert E. Sutton in the June 2000 issue of Harvard business review. After going through the concepts presented in the article, felt it was widely relevant even today considering how businesses can be innovative in the changing dynamics of the business environment. We all know that new ideas are so precious in the modern economy. It does not have to be done in an isolated fashion. The business of producing new ideas and testing them have now been made more systematic and it can be followed and implemented by any organization.

Let us have a look at Wikipedia and see  what it says about “Knowledge Brokering”

“A knowledge broker is an intermediary (an organization or a person), that aims to develop relationships and networks with, among, and between producers and users of knowledge by providing linkages, knowledge sources, and in some cases knowledge itself.”

The recycling of old ideas has been the primary engine for generating new ideas. This generation of new ideas is done through a set of processes or best practices known as the knowledge brokering cycle. The knowledge brokering cycle has four parts leading to innovation.

  1. Recording and capturing all the old ideas.
  2. Discussion and interaction on the older ideas to keep it alive.
  3. Brainstorming on the old ideas to generate new ideas.
  4. Finally, converting the new ideas into useful and commercially viable business concepts, processes or products.

The wonderful part is that each one of the parts can be practiced independently by individuals or companies or they can be used as a set of processes for generating new ideas. They serve as a best practice. Leaders and individuals who use these processes have to change their thinking and should foster that culture within their organizations.

Such thinking is increasingly practiced by more and more companies. These companies know that it is the new ideas that move their companies ahead and without which they would become obsolete.

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Understanding the Knowledge brokering cycle

Organizational leaders  know that it is no longer about working in silos but it is all about the attitude and helping each other. The more the ideas from each and everyone in the company, the better. They have learnt to systematically use the old ideas as raw materials to generate new ideas.

The process of conversion of old ideas to new ideas by following a set of systematic processes is what the knowledge brokering cycle for innovation is all about. There are some intermediary companies and organizations who take up the work of bringing together all the old ideas and make a newer connection. They make use of the old ideas in a new way, in a different combination and in a different industry.

There are many wonderful examples, where proven and established concepts are reused and recycled in a different contexts. This is an excellent way to spark creativity and innovation.

A wonderful example to mention is that of the steam engines. For more than 75 years, the steam engines ran in mines and then came Robert Fulton. Robert Fulton thought deeply about it and then came up with the idea of using the same steam engine for propelling a steam boat.  He then later on developed the first commercially accepted steam boat using a steam engine. A classic example of using a steam engine in an altogether different problem. He thus made the leap.

So it is obvious, that we need to make those leaps from older ideas and apply them in newer contexts. Knowledge brokering as a concept and as a best practice helps us make those leaps. The leaps become more and more easier as we keep embracing the knowledge brokering processes.

Now let’s quickly look at the four parts of the knowledge brokering cycle. As we have said earlier, even though the article is written in the year 2000, it is widely relevant and prevalent even today. We would say that these processes have matured, as most organizations not just within the design firms like “Ideo” and startup incubators like “Idea labs” but also other smaller organizations, consulting companies across many industries across the world who have applied these best practices within their own processes and work practices.

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1.Recording and capturing old ideas

The first obvious step is of-course to record and capture all old ideas. Leave no stone un-turned. Even if you are not sure, whether a particular idea may/may not be of use, record and capture it anyway. We never know, how it can be of use in the future.

The process is simple. When you find an old idea, you simply do not throw it away but you play with it within your mind and see what more can be done. How it works and doesn’t work in certain situations and so on. One can start imagining different ways of doing and applying the idea. But, all these mental calculations start after you have recorded and captured it.

For example, in IDEO, the design firm, employees take a field trip to a local toy shop or a hardware store to just get to see how things work. By seeing and being there, there are chances that new ideas might happen. Similarly, there are organizations which arrange employees on training to go on a field trip to visit local industries.

We can take another example from Thomas Alva Edison. This was almost hundred years ago. Edison followed many work practices, which he sincerely followed and the result of course are so many of his inventions. He says,

  1. First study the present model or construction
  2. Then, look for past experiences
  3. Do as much background reading and researching on the subject as possible.

Many innovative companies including consulting companies follow the same model for re-engineering their business processes and for process and work improvements as well.

The idea collection goes on and takes up different shapes in many industries. As mentioned earlier, many companies operate as intermediaries or play the role of knowledge brokering. They collect as much information as possible on the products and observe the users. They also engage in scanning the environment. Such scanning, recording and capturing ideas aid in initiating the next big project.

Usually, big consulting companies like Accenture engage all their clients from diverse industries once in a while and invite them over for a conference to talk about diverse industry issues and challenges. Some of these issues may lead to new ideas and thereby innovation. You just need to keep imagining. Some may click and some may not. The important thing here is that we need to keep collecting all the ideas.

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2.Discussion and interaction on the old ideas to keep it alive

This is the second step in the knowledge brokering process and which is also very crucial for the successful outcome of generating new ideas in the knowledge brokering cycle.  We need to keep the ideas alive. Discussion and interaction of the existing ideas is a continuous activity. Often, the biggest obstacles in solving the problems is not ignorance, it is not getting the right information at right time. Many people miss this information, even if they have already known or learnt about it.

Lot of information is tacit in the minds of employees. Companies lose information when employees leave them. The notion that “All ideas are good” holds true. We just need to keep piling with more and more ideas.

We need to keep discussing about the ideas and interacting with each other on “What works” and “What does not work”.

An excellent example, is the use of “Tech boxes” at IDEO. Each employee at the company owns a Tech box.  A “Tech box” is a huge collection of material (usually, interesting ideas) that the employee has collected over the years and curates it.  Over a weekly conference call, the employees discuss new additions to these boxes. This is an excellent way for employees to keep looking at their boxes and discuss it over with their colleagues. In this way, the ideas are kept alive, discussed over and passed on to others. Sometimes these stored ideas can be reused by others as well.

Ideas would die, if they are not kept alive. Practice and experience says that if the ideas are not embedded in real life objects, they would eventually die.

It was for these very characteristics that the employees at IDEO were respected for they went out of their way to help others.

Another classic example is the knowledge management system at Accenture. Initially, when they developed, they thought that the presentation slides and reference documents would be sufficient. But, this didn’t really serve the purpose. The employees did not warm up to it.

The employees used the reference documents and slides as annotated yellow pages. These pages would give them information on whom to connect to, for getting the information. Whom they should really talk to, to get the rest of the information.  The team at Accenture learnt the hard way that “having a huge database of information, is alone not enough to solve the problems”. There were lot of learnings from this direct observation and they redesigned the system.

The team at Mc-Kinsey accomplishes this by maintaining a database of “who knows what”. Through this method, the Ideas were kept alive, fresh and they were always discussed about.

Edison was also known for keeping his ideas alive. He remembered all his old ideas and had the ability to know, when and where it was used.

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3.Brainstorming on the old ideas to get newer ideas

The next important step in the knowledge brokering cycle is to find out and identify new uses for the old ideas, apply and test them for newer contexts and situations.

Nowadays, we find lot of crosspollination of ideas that happen. The internet and the social media is full of such examples. Would like to talk about two of them which caught the fancy.

The first one is the usage of old plastic pet bottles. Instead of throwing them away in the garbage can for recycling, people have found innovative ways of cutting them into two halves and using them for growing small house plants, pen stands, magazine stands and shoe racks etc.

The second one is the usage of the big plastic water drum. These plastic drums are sliced into thin strips of plastic. These strips are then used for making garden chairs.

There are many classic examples. The one on Edison’s bulb was memorable. The bulbs kept falling from their fixtures. A technician thought about this problem and suggested that they use threads after noticing a threaded cap of a kerosene bottle. And thus the threaded bulb was born.

When you start talking a lot about your problems, at one point in time you will know, who will be able to help you better. Conferences on specific issues and topics that happen all the time around the world, informal talk with colleagues and formal brainstorming sessions are some of the ways that people share their problems and this way new ideas are born.

There is also the redesign of office physical spaces. The designs are made in such a way that people always bump into each other.  Very typical of an open office space  where everyone meets everybody.

A wise man once said “the real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded in 24 hours”.

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4.Converting the new ideas into useful and commercially viable business concepts, processes or products.

The fourth and final step in the knowledge brokering cycle looks into the aspect of turning those ideas into useful concepts or products. A good idea needs to be converted into something that can be tested and experimented and if successful needs to be integrated into the rest of the other processes or pursued independently.

It is in this stage, as we experiment and test with the ideas that the mistakes can be known, rectified and improvements can be made.

There are many organizations within this knowledge brokering step that involve themselves in prototyping and making simulations. These techniques aid in refining and further developing on those ideas so that they become commercially viable.

The focus should be on testing and solving the problems and not on the final solutions. Final solutions will fall in place once we get it right with highest quality. Prototyping and testing should be part and parcel of the process towards innovation.

The positive aspects of such testing and experiments are that we know where the failures are and we learn from our mistakes and improve upon them.

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Knowledge brokering groups – inside organizations.

Any company can make use of the knowledge brokering groups that exist informally within the various functions. They can be formally assigned as the knowledge brokering group and can be given the task of assimilating facts and figures of what everybody is doing and moving the ideas from one place to another place. They act as a point of contact for further knowledge.  Other employees and business groups within the function can count on them and avoid re-inventing the wheel scenarios.

If a particular concept has already been implemented in another business unit even if it is across the globe, The knowledge brokering group can help disseminate it to the rest of the organization or to where it is needed.

A good example of this case is the Hewlett Packard’s SPAM group which was formed way back in the 1990’s to optimize the supply chains. SPAM (Strategic planning and modelling) used powerful modelling techniques to analyze “What if” scenarios and spread it to the rest of the organization.

It goes without saying, innovation can always be given a boost if the organizations can foster the right culture and if the people working inside can carry the same attitude of openness in helping others.

The people should cultivate an attitude of shared culture and openness in helping others.

Particularly, people working in the knowledge brokering groups should be curious as to know “what else they can do with the ideas and concepts and where it can be used “ rather than “from where it has come from or who has given it “. Interestingly, an “Ego scale” has been developed to screen staff from joining or raising a startup organization. This scale was developed by one “James Rabbins”.

So on a scale of 1-10, an “Ego scale” rating of 7 or 8 would suffice. A rating of 10 would be somebody who acts as if they know everything and have nothing more to learn and rating of 3 would mean somebody who lacks the confidence to be successful entrepreneurs.

The idea of the “Ego scale” is to have somebody with a right mix of confidence and humility. Such individuals will create the collaborative culture needed for the knowledge brokering groups to thrive.

Financial rewards from the organizations might help but true respect, self-worth and success for the knowledge brokering groups come when they are selfless in contributing new ideas and freely brainstorming without inhibitions. They understand that “when you give, a new insight happens”.

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Please also read our internal resource from Work Monkey Labs on a similar topic

Learning from inventors and scientists- Successive collaboration of ideas

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Idea collaboration – Learning from inventors and scientists

idea collaboration by Inventors, vintage sewing machine

Idea Collaboration – What the inventors say

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The sentence “What hath god wrought” was the first telegraphic message of the world that was sent in 1844 from the US Supreme Court premises to Baltimore in the United States. From then on it was the onset of a great invention of the Modern times which influenced the world so much. We have seen the use of the Telegraph in so many of the Hollywood’s World War movies today. But then, the question we would like to ask is, what went on those days in the minds of Inventors, Samuel Morse when he invented the telegraph? Was it a flash of creative insight? Or was it series of successive idea collaboration drawn over time that eventually went on to reveal the Telegraph. We will see that in a while.

As we seek to understand and explore these answers, they have profound impact and have great relevance for today’s problem solving methods in our workplaces and if you are an entrepreneur, it becomes much more essential to the way you work.

Similarly, there is this case of Charles Darwin who came up with the Theory of Evolution. Charles reached many dead ends but he finally came up with his significant 1859 book “On the origin of species” which changed the world overcoming previous scientific principles on the subject.

I was reading through the book “Group Genius” by Keith Sawyer. Brilliant analysis of a case study on both the inventors. Both were classic examples to prove that it is not a sudden flash of insight that happened that led to their inventions but over a long drawn case of successive idea collaboration from which the insights arose.

In the next couple of paragraphs, we will see two simple stories as examples how they can be relevant to problem solving approaches in today’s modern workplaces.  In both these examples, an important point to note is that the successive ideas happen over time. It is not instantaneous. Both the inventors had considerable time gaps before they actually came up with their breakthroughs. This time gap provided them the ample space for the discussion and successive  idea collaboration with their peers.

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Learning idea collaboration from the classic examples of inventors

Telegraph pole
Telegraph pole

Samuel F Morse was an accomplished painter in his early days. He never had an idea on the workings of the electric current. He was neither trained nor educated in those fields. It was in the year of 1829, a chance meeting with another person had changed the course of events. Morse was on a ship returning back to the United States after extensive tour of Europe. During a conversational chat with a group of people on the ship he had inkling of an idea that electric current can be used to pass messages from one place to another place. The passage of the electric current was instantaneous on wires.

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24 simple approaches to generate new ideas at workplace

Brighton beach, Creative ideas

24 simple approaches to generate new ideas at workplace

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Good ideas just happen. We just need to be aware. The ideas are all around us. They just pop up out of nowhere. Everyone has the potential to be creative. It is not connected to the innate intelligence we all possess nor it is an aptitude. It is in the way we live, work and enjoys.

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Download (PDF, 3.96MB)

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What is creativity? Then…

Creativity is a random act of awareness, which pops out of nowhere and usually and always turns a raw or an unrefined thing into something beautiful, real and of great value.

Creative easter egg idea
Creative Easter egg idea

Creativity is Ubiquitous. The “Creativity at work” blog says Creativity is the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. Wikipedia on Creativity  says that, Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new or somehow valuable is formed. The created item is usually intangible.

Brian Clegg and Paul Birch wrote in their book “Instant creativity” that Creativity is illusive. There is an “artistic creativity” which involves writing a book or producing a piece of music and then there is the “creativity of discovery”, here we discover or invent new products and things and then finally there is the “creativity of Humor” which involves seeing the world differently. From the perspective of organizational, business or work challenges, creativity or solving with creative ideas usually involves all the three aspects of creativity.

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What are the practical challenges for having creative ideas?

Different colour pencils
Challenges are many

From an organizational or a business context, creativity is not a fancy nice to have feature anymore. In fact, without it very few companies would have survived today. When solving our work challenges, without a creative idea, we would be looking at the same problem day in and day out, without viewing it from a different frame of mind. Old problems would still remain.

We may just accept the need for creativity and acknowledge it by recruiting a few creative people from the market to serve our needs. It is good in a way, but we are missing to solve our work challenges through our own creative ideas. We may not know, our ideas may be the best and we are the ones who know the problems better than the paid external talent.

Everyone has the creative potential and it is just that we are not aware of it and therefore not using it. Some have even suppressed it.  There could be many reasons.

The reasons for not using our creativity could be many. It could be that we are not in the right mood, or it is the wrong timing and also it could be in the way we have been educated. We know it or not the major emphasis on today’s education is focused on getting the right answer or the required answer rather than coming up with a creative solution.

Many of us would have come through an education system which lays emphasis on regurgitation. Our examinations force us to write answers which the examiners want rather than writing creative answers or offering creative solutions to problems.  Even in the corporate business environments, there is no chance for failure the focus is more on quick results.

But it is only through failures that we learn. Failures shouldn’t matter to us. It is only through facing them that we will achieve creativity. Everyone should be given a free hand to express and contribute. Knowing that you would fail shouldn’t be ridiculed.

The other areas are psychological which involve having a tunnel vision, which is not being able to see beyond one’s immediate activity having a narrow view of things and then there is also the lack of inspiration.

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Practical approaches to adopt to solve challenges at work

The approaches mentioned here, willingly take you off from a well proven established viewpoint to compel you to do something which you otherwise wouldn’t do. This would be uncomfortable in the beginning but it slowly leads you on to the path of generating creative ideas.

When you follow these methods, it is natural that you come up with something that is entirely different. It is an opportunity to look at your work challenges from a fresh perspective and from a different frame of mind.

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Practical method 1:  Ask the question “What’s the Problem”?

 

Have a cup of tea
What’s the problem, have a cup of tea

This addresses the question what’s the problem within your current work area. Generating creative ideas is generally a two-step process where it involves individually approaching the problem as well as taking help of the group. As an individual, you come up with an initial rough idea and then you develop and refine those creative ideas better with a group.

Let’s look at some practical ways in addressing “what’s the problem ?”. This aims at coming up with an appropriate set of requirements. Initially, we may not know what we may need. The question may not be clear in the beginning. But after a series of “How to” questioning or questions, something begins to emerge.

  1. New pathways

Here, this method is used to find the real work challenge or the problem underlying the problem statement. We need to keep asking the question “Why” when somebody uses the question “How to”. We keep asking “Why” a lot of times. This keeps continuing for some time till we reach a situation where each ‘Why” question becomes a “How to” question on its own.

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