Socializing Knowledge Practices

Peter JonesInnovation

Yes, this was really about Innovation at first. But like authors that avoid the use of the verb “to be,” I am attempting to write about systematic product and systems design without using the “I” word. I’d like to write about creating a “Culture of Innovation,” but I agree with Peter Merholz and others who suggest the term is overused. (Especially in UX.) But innovation is not going away, so let’s find ways to make it work.

What concerns me about contemporary organizations is the extent to which top office-holders push the idea of I without understanding how I really happens. How does I really happen, and how is it diminished? Most of us in the design professions readily respond by insisting that creative, divergent thinking must always be pushed to the lowest level of management where the action happens. Design or UX management, who are ultimately responsible for designing new artifacts for competitive advantage. But how do we resolve the subsidiarity of designing with the strategic imperatives of product portfolio management, or revenue responsibility for the next year? Where do the trade-off decisions affecting what we call “innovation” really happen?

What I call socialization comes from empirical observations that people who take ownership of their processes in organizations establish the practices best suited to their products and strategy. It applies to design, product management, user experience, and strategy – all knowledge practices.

HBR’s Working Knowledge posts a special discussion on What Is Management’s Role in Innovation? 76 comments (none of them mine, because I blog instead) show a huge degree of “spreadthink,” the opposite of groupthink, with comments all over the map. A closer look shows the same age-old controversy in organizational management and advising which is (always) of two positions: Management’s role is A) Significant, and the Executives better Get It, or B) They’re in the Way, and those close to the customer/problem should innovate.

Of course, it depends on the organization and their type of innovation problem. Even readers of HBR (OK, online) are revealing their spreadthink about the very definition of innovation. Again, two extremes often show up: Innovation = Creativity/ Invention, or Innovation = business process. Answer = both and neither.

But this article follows another relevant piece that complements the discussion. The larger issue of effective leadership in complex organizational settings (typified by product development and innovation) is showing up. In An Inside Job: Best Practices from Within, December’s Strategy+Business tells us “the best solutions to an organization’s problems may be found among its members.” The article reports on the Pittsburgh VA Hospitals’ use of the Positive Deviance knowledge acquisition process (which they term a strategy, perhaps a knowledge startegy), to locate wisdom about infectious disease prevention and mitigation from practitioners within the institution. Positive Deviance is a kind of lead user approach for identifying practices at the fringes that might be developed and deployed institutionally. (One would hope infection management practices would not be THAT deviant in a hospital!) But this article, and the HBR online, both present innovations emerging from ground level practices that become institutionalized through recognition of value and managerial deployment.