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It might seem unnecessarily provocative to say that innovation is a conservative profession but let me make the case for why it is and what to do about it. Some of the most dramatic innovations in the past two decades have come from two sources: open source software and standards. There is a big gap between those two cultures and there is also commonality. Innovation can learn a lot from studying them.

A comparison of open source and social media will help illustrate lesson 1:  Build a powerful, self-critical learning community.

Social media, like innovation, is a topic that stretches across many different areas – marketing, influence, social networks, blogging – and vertical sectors. Like innovation it is a self-generative community – that means whatever goes on within it is generated from within. There are no formal qualifications needed, no course to attend, no exams to pass to be part of it so it is also very inclusive.  Because of that the standard of execution, the standards that people bring to learning about innovation are a bit of a mystery. This is a “for good or ill” outcome. On the good side, it is great to have open access communities; on the ill side, we don’t know enough about the standard of capability we are developing.

What we deem to be good practice relies on case studies, which often are, by their nature, exceptions. In social media a popular case is Oreo. The biscuit brand managed to use a lights-out at the 2013 Super Bowl to promote itself on Twitter. Instructive example or fluke? Whichever, it is now a case that people refer to when they talk of real-time social media.

In open source software it is different (and the same principles are extending to open source engineering more generally). In open source software the collaborative community now has over 40 years of co-experience in building techniques that get the best code out of a community of co-producing developers, often working for no cash but just as often working to promote their reputations.

There are structures in open source activities – for example when people produce code it doesn’t necessarily go straight into a product. It is first critiqued by peers. Over a period of time a set of code is harnessed by a committer who might take a vote on whether it should be committed to a project. These actions generate debate and refinement that often, in fact usually, extends to the bigger project that an open source sub-project is contributing to and the philosophical approach of the community.

In social media and innovation these sometimes hyper-critical debates don’t take place. I think this contributes to problems of repetition – we see a lot of similar material produced on how to do innovation - and problems of quality: the material we produce doesn’t harness collective critique to produce something that is progressively better, whether that be better thinking, better guidance, better training materials or more astute communities. In short we lack an open source approach even though we work within an open publishing model.


The second example is standardization. Lesson 2: Standardize where you can.

Why is mobile telephony so ubiquitous? There are over 4.55 billion users of mobiles. No technology has ever come close to it, save perhaps the well or the plough. There is a reason and it speaks also to why the web is so widespread. It is standardization. By the time of 3G and surely by 4G there was more or less a global standard for how phones connect to networks. Standards have given mobility unprecedented scale, while the World Wide Web has been hived off into social networks like Facebook and Google+.

Open source standardizes too, doesn’t it? Linux is a pretty standardized OS and platforms that grow off it like Android are also standards-based, though, yes, companies like Amazon go off in their own direction. The standards rule doesn’t quite hold across the board.

These two lessons can be summarised as build a true open source learning community and standardize where you can.

I recently reviewed the issue of self-learning in social media, in an article on Social Media Today. The reason for writing is that I sensed in social media a vibrant community is repeating itself too often and avoiding the tough process of really challenging people who express an opinion about what is good social practice.

I sense this same failure at work in innovation. Is there a public agenda to develop better innovation practices? Are we working towards it collectively in a healthy, critical way? Are we actually creating and harnessing an open learning community? I doubt it, though you might argue the MOOC’s are beginning to happen and open publishing is definitely alive and kicking. The missing ingredients though are community and criticism, the harsh stuff that open publishing encourages us to avoid.

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Haydn Shaughnessy

Haydn Shaughnessy

I'm an expert on systemic innovation and transformation, a topic I have been studying since the early 1980s. I advise companies and organizations on the latest thinking and practice in innovation as w