Monday, November 29, 2004

Innovation and Ideas: Understand the Difference To Pick The Means

Reading Tim Bray's blog on corporate blogging and outward and inward facing blogging, it occurs to me that when espousing the idea of open vs closed blogging, one should look at or reference the concepts of clusters and long distance inputs. See these articles on six degrees of invention and on innovation diffusion.

This resonates with the concepts of Information Ecosystems. To the point:

1. Ideas and innovations are not the same thing. Ideas can be blogged, shared on maillists or even in more controlled tech, forumed. Innovations are diffused through customer adoption, that means, real running code/product. If one wants to diffuse an innovation a wiki or even a UDDI registry are the means. The means are determined by appetite for messiness and risk/reward tolerance. Messy systems diffuse more ideas at a higher rate. More orderly systems diffuse innovations more predictably. Again, skating at the edge of chaos..

2. Clusters tend to retard ideas but diffuse innovation. Big changes tend to come from long distance relationships where distance can be conceptual or spatial. Clustered relationships can have very long lifecycles. Look at the Markup Tribe, as Tim named them. Innovation is inherently collaborative and so is leadership. To the point of Tim's blog, closed blogging systems don't take advantage of long distance relationships. They tend to reinforce the local clusters. "Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups." ;-)

3. Mid career employees are rising in value, not diminishing. Just as one acquires a company to acquire a market (not just the IP or technology), one hires an employee for their cluster membership (analogous to the old, hired them for their rolodex idea and why your resume includes your organizational memberships. It should also include your Google rating and Google count for contributions to mail lists, wikis and open source projects).

4. Companies are no longer a means to capture and hold ideas but a means to diffuse innovations through customer relationships. Customers can also be a long distance source of ideas (usually are in any RFP-driven business).

5. Ideas can't be patented. Innovations can. Note that Sony recently announced that they have patented 'emergent semantics' which is an idea that has been discussed for years here and elsewhere. The idea that semantics emerge bottom-up as systems negotiate to do tasks is venerable. I don't know what is innovative about the Sony patents, but like a lot of software patents, they may not pass the obviousness test.

This comes down to the appetite for ideas and the risk management for innovation. One can separate and manage these in theory, but in the real ecosystem, when the good ideas stop coming, the clusters lose their vitality and the innovation stops. Coming from a company that formerly had the mantra, "Shut up and go back to work!" now attempting to innovate by committee, it will be an interesting test of the learning curve of this company to see how long it takes them to find out that forums are ok for innovation, but for ideas, outward facing blogging is better.

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