Innovation versus Institutions

Innovating from inside of an organization is stunning in its difficulty, frustration, and often, it’s difficult to understand why even the simplest of ideas meets with such a high level of friction and sluggish progress. Again, I’ll thank NYU Professor Clay Shirky for his book, Here Comes Everybody, for some sparks that led to this article.

You may recall that my previous post dealt with the connections between the individuals who form a group or a network of groups. Within an organization, those connections are weighted, in part by company hierarchy, in part by control over resources, and in part on the history and fluidity of past relationships. In other words, connections within an organization are often complicated by internal and external factors. And, of course, not every relationship is equally valued. Some connections are stronger than others. You might recall the old 80/20 rule, for example, in which 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people.

Well, it turns out that the 80/20 rule doesn’t much apply to innovation, or to community interactions. If you look closely at Wikipedia–easily the largest informal group enterprise we’ve ever generated as humans–“fewer than two percent of Wikipedia users every contribute, yet that is enough to create profound value for millions of users. Wikipedia would not be possible if there were concern for inequality.” With a publish-then-filter model now overtaking the older, highly institutionalized model of research-write-edit-rewrite-publish, much more gets written, and errors are corrected along the way, particularly in articles that matter. (Those that don’t much matter are rarely accessed, and so, rarely corrected.) So we have a small number of people–nowhere near 20 percent of the total Wikipedia user base–contributing large amounts for an operation that is a nonprofit, not a business.

It’s here that the divergence becomes interesting. Imagine a business taking on the writing of the world’s largest encyclopedia, one that is never quite published, but always exists in draft form. Companies just don’t work that way–they have processes, standards, and overhead, project management, deliverables, and the entire structure of jobs and careers relies, mostly, upon incremental improvements to the status quo. Very large projects are within the reach of larger institutions, but the process of planning, developing, politicking, funding, hiring and moving people…none of it is simple, and there are ample opportunities for slowdowns, moving off track, shifting priorities, and so much more. That’s how institutions work: they perfect processes over time, but they struggle with entirely new endeavors because the status quo makes so much more sense than the risky new proposition. Massive shifts in thinking are not easy to absorb. Large-scale systemic change does not make sense.

There are fewer than 100 copies of the EB print edition still available (but none in this binding). If you want one, click on this link now (don’t wait!).

Except, of course, that significant, often large-scale, systemic change is becoming a new normal. There is no more Encyclopaedia Britannica in print, no more Tower Records stores, no more Kodak film (well, almost none), no more barriers to global video distribution, no reason why a clever sentence or article can’t be seen by millions of people just an instant after the draft is complete.

So status quo is part of the reason why institutions and innovation aren’t always BFF. But there’s another component, equally important: freedom to fail. When an institution fails, it risks funding, loss of customers, and shifts in leadership. When innovators fail, they may cry in their beer on Friday night, but on Monday morning, they’re back at work, having learned from the flop. No shareholder worries, no customer loss (okay, maybe a little), and in the end, probably more valuable learning than systemic damage. So institutions do all they can to avoid failure, and often, this means extracting the heart of a project or venture, or obfuscating, or demanding more analysis, or some other status quo maneuver. And individuals who are part of, for example, an open source community, correct the errors and move on without substantial loss of momentum (because the primary reason for that community’s existence is to DO things and to avoid NOT DOING things). In this shifted paradigm, the institution struggles to make substantive progress, knowing that the less encumbered other may well cause the death of their venture.

Shirky: “Open source is a profound threat, not because the open source ecosystem is out-succeeding commercial efforts but because it is out-failing them. Because the open source ecosystem, and by extension open systems generally, rely upon peer production, the work on these systems can be considerably more experimental, at considerably less cost, than any firm can afford. Why? The most important reasons are that open systems lower the cost of failure, they do not create biases in favor of predictable but substandard outcomes, and they make it simpler to integrate the contributions of people who contribute only a single idea. The overall effect of failure is its likelihood times its cost. Most organizations attempt to reduce the effect of failure by reducing its likelihood…(making safe choices). Open source doesn’t reduce the likelihood of failure, it reduces the cost of failure; it essentially gets its failure for free…cheap failure, valuable as it is, is also a key part of a more complex advantage: the exploration of multiple possibilities.”

What now? If you haven’t yet read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, do it now. If you’ve already done that, you may take the rest of week off. Here he is at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society talking about his work….

Siri, meet the family

The UK cover is more interesting than the US cover, which is, somewhat appropriately, covered with the repeated words "The Information."

James Gleick nearly won a Pulitzer Prize for a biography about Isaac Newton, and another about Richard Feynmann, a colorful physicist who pioneered nanotechnology and quantum mechanics. His best selling book (more than a million copies sold) is the step-by-step, scientist-by-scientist, idea-by idea story of chaos theory entitled Chaos: Making a New Science.

Gleick’s 2011 book is called The Information. it begins with the European discovery of African talking drums in the 1840s, a percussive idea he eventually connects to Samuel Morse’s dots-and-dashes telegraph code, and, we’re off on a long tale not unlike the best of James Burke’s TV series, Connections. Gleick takes us through the development of letters and alphabets, numbers and mathematics, numerical tables and algorithms, dictionaries and encyclopedias. These stories, and their many tangents, set us up for Charles Babbage whose boredom with the Cambridge curriculum in mathematics leads to an early, impossible-to-build, 25,000 piece machine, awesome in its analog, mechanical, Victorian design. This, then, leads to the further develop of the telegraph, now caught up in a new conception called a “network” that connected much of France, for example.

By the early 20th century, MIT becomes one of several institutions concerned with the training of electrical engineers–then, a new discipline–and with it, machinery to solve second-order differential equations (“rates of change within rates of change: from position to velocity to acceleration”). This, plus the logic associated with relay switches in telegraph networks, provides MIT graduate student Claude Shannon with his thesis idea: connecting electricity with logical interactions in a network. Shannon’s path leads to Bell Labs, where he works on the “transmission of intelligence.” By 1936, a 22-year old Cambridge graduate named Alan Turing had begun thinking about a machine that could compute.

Well, that’s about half the book. Now, things become more complex, harder to follow, dull for all but the most interested reader. The interweaving connects DNA and memes (and, inevitably, memetics, which is the study of memes), cybernetics and randomness, quantification of information, and Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 conception of an ultimate library with “all books, in all languages, books of apology and prophecy, the gospel and commentary on that gospel, and commentary upon the commentary upon the gospel…”

Eventually we obsolete CD-ROMs (too much information, too little space), and create Wikipedia and the whole of the Internet. In the global googleplex, the term “information overload” becomes inadequate. And yet, Gleick promises, it is not the quantity that matters, it is the meaning that matters. After 420 pages of historical text, I’m still wondering what it all means–and whether the purpose is mere conveyance as opposed to deeper meaning or its hopeful result, understanding.

Moyers to Public TV: Reinvent Yourself!

These are some of my favorite excerpts from an inspiring speech by one of public television’s long-term heroes, Bill Moyers. He delivered the speech in November, 2010 at a gathering of public television programming executives…

“The core problem is that we still don’t have an expansive national vision of what we’re about, where we want to go and what we want to become. Until we are able to say clearly and comprehensively what it is we really want to do, how much it will cost, and how we intend to get there, we can’t blame Congress, the White House or even the foundations for not supporting us more fully.

…There’s a huge vacuum between the [public television] system, nationally and locally, and the big foundations and no one has yet been inspired or capable enough to link the two at the level of a consensus national plan.

There are always people who remain afraid of change or an unknown process, fearful of where it might lead.  But by contrast, the British and Canadians go through periodic charter reviews that invoke a national conversation; there’s a culture of discussion and planning for public media in those nations that help them survive even the worst assaults from detractors or vested interests. This could be a reason that public support for public media in nations like the U.K. exceeds $80 per capita, while we’re still limping along on $1.49 per capita.

…In the meantime, I’m here to tell you that even within the fiscal crisis public television currently faces, we have an opportunity to serve the public — to renew our bond to our communities.

You may not have money for in-depth documentaries or other high-end productions but you have cameras, microphones, studios and the trust of the community. You can be the ombudsman for the public within your reach, provide the venue for forums, teach-ins, town meetings, and debates over the issues that matter to people where they live, telecast in an atmosphere of openness and clarity without the mean and mindless rhetoric or cant that are so triumphant today. Civic engagement is the lifeblood of democracy and the bedrock of its legitimacy. No media can nurture, foster, and empower it the way we can.

…Meanwhile, let me offer just a few other ideas for you to consider:  Take a whole evening of primetime and give it to a forum for the fight in your neighborhoods over charter schools. Do the same for other distressed public institutions — your libraries, for example.

Or how about one week inviting as many social workers as you can get into your studio and asking them to share what they see every day — how people are coping each day with these worst hard times?  Do a series of workshops on Occupy Wall Street, pro and con.  Out there in Iowa, find the lady carrying the placard I saw last weekend on television that read: “I couldn’t afford to buy a politician so I bought this sign.” Bring her into the studio with her local member of Congress — have them talk frankly to each other about their different perceptions of money in politics. Do an evening of primetime on the fight going on right now in your state over redistricting — gerrymandering — the outcome will influence your state’s position and power for the next 10 years. Get folks aware and involved. If you don’t, who will? Certainly not the commercial stations in your market, that’s for sure.

…since David H. Koch of Koch Industries is on the board of both WGBH and WNET, I’d ask him to round up his billionaire buddies — and in a nonpartisan spirit reach out to civic-minded progressive billionaires like George Soros — and together create an independent, fully endowed, self-governing production center (free of any partisan strings or influence) for American drama that would bring our epic history and culture to the screen just like we’ve brought over the Brits’ Downton Abbey, make room for Jefferson’s Monticello! Now, there’s an Upstairs Downstairs story the public would make a pledge to see.

…What we need is a makeover of our own — a rebirth, yes, of vision, imagination, and creativity, but above all a structure and scheme for the 2lst century, one that uses the resources that the digital platform provides to realize the goals of our founders: diversity, public access, civic discourse, experimentation, a welcoming place for independent spirits.

The whole speech–including his idea for public television’s equivalent of a constitutional convention– can be found here:

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