Knowledge & Innovation: The Journey Is as Valuable as the Destination

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a pretty traditional background in terms of product management. I was an assistant buyer for a retail chain, I marketed as an investment banker, and I’ve had over seven years in the software world. From that work, I’ve gotten a good feel for the process that occurs in producing an end result.

  1. Start with the idea
  2. Bounce it off your boss and peers
  3. Write it up
  4. Email it around
  5. Sit down with people
  6. Re-work the idea
  7. Produce the final version (PRD, white paper, pitch deck, etc.)

For most of us, step 7 is the prize, the definition of what’s valuable. All else is a pain in the ass.

But having spent some time on FriendFeed, I’m starting to recognize the value of steps 2 – 6. The conversations and debates to get from Point A to Point B are actually incredibly valuable.

The problem isn’t the work of getting from Point A to Point B. The problem is the methods we typically have inside the workplace. I suspect few corporate cultures are set up to make the journey as rewarding as the end result.

What do I mean exactly? Well, take the iteration process for a given initiative. You send an email, get single replies back from several folks. You sit in a meeting, and there’s this vague group meeting dynamic where someone with the most passion (right or wrong) ends up controlling the meeting vibe. Maybe you do a series of one-on-ones.

The problem with these methods is that the conversations are limited. Debates take the form of comparing the feedback of different people. I know this. I’ve lived it. You ever try to coordinate the Outlook Calendars of various people? In a series of meetings? It’s a nightmare.

So what has FriendFeed taught me? That there is a way to improve this process. That the journey to  Point B can actually be fun and engaging. And that it has value. Companies should take heed.

Here’s what I would love to see. Companies adopt ways to enable asynchronous conversations around ideas that are searchable, engaging and radiate greater benefits than just producing a final result. Wikis are good, but they too often have an emphasis on maintaining versions of documents. They lack the vital conversations that go into the various versions of a document.

What are the benefits of companies than can figure this out? Plenty! Here are three that come to mind:

  • Context for the end product
  • Other ideas come out of the process
  • Deeper understanding of others’ views and knowledge

Let me break these down a bit more.

Context for the End Product

When consuming the content after it is completed, all someone knows is what they read. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The document says that System A will do Action 3 after receiving Data #. It’s a straightforward recitation of what people are supposed to know.

But if you have context for why things are spelled out the way they are, I argue you’ve got much more informed workers.

I’m personally not satisfied with only reading something. I always want to know why something ended up the way it did. Especially when you’re reading something new, that background is vital context.

But too often, all workers have is the end product. Which means they end up with half the story, and not enough background to really grok the content.

Other Ideas Come Out of the Process

A rich conversation and debate around ideas and projects can become an innovation jam. As people jump in the fray to discuss something, inevitably other tangential ideas come flying out.

In an earlier post FriendFeed ‘Likes’ Compatibility Index, good discussion erupted out on FriendFeed (here, here). If that post was Point A, I’ve already written about Point B, which was an app built by felix to automatically calculate your likes compatibility index.

But there was another idea thrown off from the discussions: how well represented are women on FriendFeed and social media? Mark Trapp wrote Friendfeed Like Factor and the Gender Divide which put some numbers and thoughts to this question. Which got its own discussion going.

I’m quite sure an energetic conversation by engaged employees has the same effect – unplanned ideas come out of them.

Spread some innovation jam.

Deeper Understanding of Others’ Views and Knowledge

It’s funny to say, but I feel like I have a better read on some folks through FriendFeed than I did on people with whom I actually worked.

Why? Because work in some companies is fairly isolated. You may trade some emails, do some calls and attend status meetings. But the fertile soil of engagement is lacking. Aside from missing the benefits described above, employees miss the opportunity to learn more about one another.

Why does this matter? The better you understand your colleagues, the easier your job becomes. People develop instinctive ways of working, and a shorthand language built from prior interactions emerges. Long time employees do this, but it takes while. And new employees have to pick up the signals as best they can.

What I like about this approach is that employee social networks just emerge naturally via the interactions. A more formal social network approach isn’t needed.

Gimme Some FriendFeed Inside the Enterprise

If I could get a FriendFeed-like experience inside a company, I’d be thrilled. For all the reasons stated above. Plus it would just be fun.

I’ve said before that FriendFeed is a social network built around ideas. And the typical work for a lot of folks is also around ideas. Seems like there’s potential.

There would need to be some new features to make it the experience more pertinent to work versus play. But that’s a follow-up post.

Final Thoughts

As stated earlier, I’d like to see companies adopt ways to enable asynchronous conversations around ideas that are searchable, engaging and radiate greater benefits. Things like wikis are a good start as collaboration vehicles, but they lack the interaction aspect that has emerged as the killer feature of social media.

The nice thing is that new start-ups are popping up all the time. I look forward to seeing the ones that take in the next wave of innovation.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.