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Does Self-Censorship Help Innovation? The Enterprise 2.0 Approach

Credit: gerriet

Credit: gerriet

Came across this interesting perspective on the blog of Mark Turrell, CEO of idea management software company Imaginatik, in his post Myth #3: “We need lots of ideas”:

The next time someone tells you that you need lots of ideas, stop, think and work out the outcomes you want before you go collecting thousands, and thousands, and potentially more thousands of fluffy, non-relevant ideas that go nowhere.

The next time someone tells you that you need lots of ideas, stop, think and work out the outcomes you want before you go collecting thousands, and thousands, and potentially more thousands of fluffy, non-relevant ideas that go nowhere.

The gist of Mark’s post is that encouraging the contribution of ideas from all quarters is actually counterproductive. He prescribes the concept of an “appropriate” number of ideas.

Wow. Really?

The post makes some good points, but I’m not in agreement with its overall tone. As I read the post, it struck me that there are really only two ways to reduce the number of ideas:

  • Limit who gets to contribute ideas
  • Have everyone self-censor ideas that they “know” will be noise

This perspective is quite different from the tenets that are driving the Enterprise 2.0 movement. There are three elements of Enterprise 2.0 that are relevant here:

  1. Emergence
  2. Filters
  3. Culture

One disclaimer. My company is Spigit, which provides an enterprise innovation platform. We integrate social software heavily into our application, so naturally my take on Mark’s post will differ. But readers of this blog know I’ve been part of the Enterprise 2.0 field for a while. Perhaps my perspective isn’t so surprising.

On to it then!

Emergence

Credit: Dion Hinchcliffe

Credit: Dion Hinchcliffe

Are ideas the province of a privileged few?

Emergence is a cornerstone of Enterprise 2.0. The principle says that ideas and knowledge are found throughout an organization, not just in the executive suite. In the daily rhythms of their work, employees everywhere build up an immense trove of experience and learnings. They encounter the “why don’t we?” questions every day. It’s tapping these ideas and knowledge that drives the value proposition of Enterprise 2.0, and is reshaping the corporate workplace.

In the graphic to the right, Dion Hinchcliffe provides a basis for considering traditional software versus social software. There is, obviously, a need for both inside companies. For instance, financial accounting is not an emergent activity. The SEC and FASB have very specific standards for companies to follow. Auditors have a series of criteria they use to confirm the integrity of a company’s financial statements. Centralized control and access are important here.

Innovation, on the other hand, does not have similar constraints. There are really two limits for business innovation:

  1. Do ideas meet the strategic direction of the company?
  2. Does the company have the resources to turn an idea into an innovation?

The nature of innovation – what’s next? – means that tapping the full power of an organization is important. That doesn’t mean that everyone is constantly ideating. Things do need to be done. But as Stefan Lindegaard writes in his post Should everyone work with innovation?

On the other hand, every employee should be given the opportunity to work with innovation even at a certain radical level through a variety of initiatives setup by your innovation leaders. This could be idea generating campaigns, internal business plan competitions and innovation camps.

That strikes me as the right answer. No limits on employees’ opportunities to contribute ideas.

Filters

“It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” Clay Shirky, Web 2.0 Expo.

The issue of how to handle an avalanche of contributions – ideas, requests, information – has emerged as an acute issue with the proliferation of online media. You’ll find people discussing issues of noise vs. signal, “email bankruptcy” and the need to pare down their social networks.

Clay Shirky gets it right in his philosophical positioning. The capacity of every individual to generate contributions is significant. That’s not going away, and as we’ve seen with the use of Twitter in the Iranian election protests, it shouldn’t.

Rather, the focus needs to be in refining the ways people manage information. Instinctively, you know when a piece of information is valuable. Have you stopped to consider why it was valuable? What were the contextual variables that made it so?

The application of filters is an ongoing effort by the industry, made more pertinent by the “roll-your-own” approach of many social media sites. But think about this: Google has been employing filters for a decade. The Google PageRank is an important filter for displaying search results. PageRank is a form of authority, based on a website’s inbound links.

Here in 2009, an array of tools are available for filtering contributions. A key tool is leveraging what a community finds valuable. Distributing the work of defining value to thousands of different people is proving to be a powerful way to identify signal. Take for example, the My Starbucks Idea site, there are currently 9,500 ideas there. Sure, it’s a lot. But the community has done a tremendous job of filtering those ideas. You can see that when you compare the top 20 to the bottom 20.

What are some other filters? For idea management, here are just a few:

  • Minimum community approval level
  • Tags and key words
  • Latest ideas
  • Ideas within specific categories
  • Ideas with minimum number of votes
  • Ideas with minimum number of views
  • Ideas with minimum number of comments
  • Ideas in a specified stage of evaluation

You get the gist of this. Social software is evolving to provide better and better ways to filter through contributions.

One other issue with following a hard-coded view of what’s signal and what’s noise: Your noise might be my signal. It depends on what you’re working on. As the graphic below shows, it’s really about stuff you’re seeking. And even the stuff you’re not seeking can be classified as discovery, fuel for innovation.

a-definition-of-noise

This is the value of a rich quantity of ideas. Signal and discovery can come from anywhere.

Culture

If you treat everyone like sheep, you’ll end up with employees who are sheep.

My view here is informed by working in several different companies, both large and small. I’ve been exposed to cultures where employees are assumed and expected to contribute fully and meaningfully, and to cultures where the attitude is “when I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

Changing the latter mindset is what Enterprise 2.0 is about. It taps a rich vein of contributions that have value in their own right. It also creates a work environment that most employee surveys show is highly desired and sought after.

Talk of there being an “appropriate” amount of ideas, and that most employee contributions constitute “noise” is antithetical to the direction companies are heading. For example, AT&T published a white paper several months ago, The Business Aspects of Social Networking. The paper looks at the opportunities that the rise of social networks is bringing, both externally with customers and internally with employees. Included in that paper is this table:

AT&T white paper - leadership styles

AT&T has 300,000 employees and a long history in the United States. The fact that they’re talking this way is a good indicator that the market is moving towards a more collaborative, participatory environment, away from the same old controls that have marked work for centuries.

If employees are expected to self-censor their noisy ideas, that will have a chilling effect on participation. After all, you might risk embarrassing yourself, and incurring the wrath of people who monitor for noise. Why bother?

Bring the Noise

Innovation is built on the contributions of many people, and many experiences. This is something stressed in both Scott Berkun’s Myths of Innovation and William Duggan’s Strategic Intuition. Incorporating these three elements of Enterprise 2.0 – emergence, filters, culture – are powerful drivers of innovation for companies.

So let a thousand ideas bloom!

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