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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tapping the Network to Facilitate Innovation

by Venessa Miemis

Tapping the Network to Facilitate InnovationA few weeks ago, I entered a contest to receive a free entry to the Social Business Edge conference coming up in April in NYC, and a chance to share the idea on stage. I just found out my entry is one of four that was selected. I'm copying it here, but I'd love to build it out with you:

How can the power and scope of social networks, combined with a human capital inventory, be used to facilitate shared creation and innovation?

It wasn't that long ago that society was a byproduct of an industrial era, characterized by assembly lines, processes, and efficiency. Like the machines they operated, people were not expected to think, but to conform and become a cog - a replicable, interchangeable part of a machine. The problem is, humans weren't designed for mechanization. We were designed to create.

With the rise of social tools, we've been publicly reclaiming ourselves - publishing blogs, joining social networks, and connecting and sharing information with each other on a global scale. As a result, a shift in values is underway, where privacy, gatekeeping, and the preference for information silos is being replaced with new expectations of publicy, openness and transparency. We're still exploring the implications of this transition both for our personal identities and for the role of the business organization, but there's the potential to redesign the system in a way that's fair, participatory, and human.

But how?

A part of it is in understanding the composition of our social networks, and the skills, strengths, and relationships that are embedded within them. At the organizational level, knowledge is often separated by department, and at a larger scale it's separated by the notions of producer verse consumer. These barriers no longer make sense. In order to take advantage of hidden insights and innovative ideas, there needs to be a way to understand who's who and how to get the information flowing through the proper channels.

A tool that would map the connections within a network combined with a 'human capital' assessment could aid in this process. By mapping the network, one would understand the relationships between individuals and groups, how knowledge flows, and spot areas where communication channels could be opened and new connections made. A human capital inventory would be like a resume, but with context. It might show an individual's past experience and affiliations and skills, but also include things like social capital, sphere of influence, reputation, inherent strengths, and personality type. This information would give clues as to how to create dynamic teams and at what stage of a process an individual's skills would be best applied.

By creating transparency and open channels, a social learning environment is created, where managers become leaders and facilitators and everyone else becomes participants. This is opposite to being cogs in a machine - rather it encourages creativity, collaboration, and shared creation. It's become apparent that a vast amount of knowledge exists within the structure of the network itself, and by creating the proper conditions for information to be shared and built upon, we can devise solutions that are better than zero-sum. Approaching problems with this mindset would have an amplifying effect that would scale beyond the limits of the organization.

Taking the Idea Further

So there's the premise. The ideas are not new, but seem to exist currently in different places in different stages. For instance, the idea of measuring influence is currently being tested with services like Klout, and Tweetlevel. The Whuffie Bank is trying to devise a currency that's built on reputation that could be redeemed for real and virtual products and services. And I was just alerted to a new startup, Jostle, that's trying to help companies "harness and engage their human capital."

On the other side, you have the people who are trying to understand how knowledge flows within an organization, and how the learning process works. I've picked up a lot of ideas about social network analysis from Valdis Krebs, the concept of Wirearchy from Jon Husband, and ways to bridge the gap between a networked enterprise and social learning from Harold Jarche and Frederic Domon.

Plus all the people doing work in Knowledge Management, (David Gurteen and Dave Snowden come to mind), Design Thinking (Arne van Oosterom), Social Business Design (David Armano, Peter Kim, Jeremiah Owyang), and the 'big shift' that's impacting business strategy and innovation (John Hagel & John Seely Brown).

Plus all of you who make this blog worth visiting by adding your insights and comments to every post. I feel like all the pieces are out there, we just need to imagine how to bring them together. I've been throwing out this idea on Twitter, and getting some interesting thoughts, but 140 characters is too short, so I wanted to put it here to see where we could go with it.

I'm imagining some kind of a social tagging system that would travel with you, like a "live" version of your resume - which is currently a static and vague document that lacks the rich context that tells what you're really all about. What would this look like? Could we somehow have a 'human capital inventory' that would list some of those inherent strengths that we possess? Descriptive words like adaptive, flexible, catalyst, playful, critical thinker, methodical, etc. Or some way to tag the contributions we made to specific projects or initiatives at work? And then could that be combined with a visualization of our social connections, both strong and weak ties, and the value we add to those various networks? And along with that, recommendations or compliments or testimonials, or some way to have individuals give you props.

How would this look? We've gotten so good at tagging the world around us, of creating folksonomies to understand everything around us. Isn't it only a matter of time before we start tagging ourselves?

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Venessa MiemisVenessa Miemis is a Media Studies graduate student at the New School in NYC, exploring what happens at the intersection of technology, culture, and communication. Connect with her at www.emergentbydesign.com and on Twitter @venessamiemis.

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Blogger Soenke Dohrn said...

The term “human capital” has been subject to heated discussions since its surfacing. In Europe with the Basel II agreement banks when giving credits to companies are required to evaluate the human capital of that company, too. Since the human capital predominantly holds knowledge and skill, along the line of the balanced score card the Wissensbilanz (knowledge survey) was developed as a tool in Germany to measure knowledge in terms of human capital and organizational business processes. Controlling and strategically developing is the domain human capital management, where companies deduce from business strategy what skills and competencies are required in say 3 years time and develop an appropriate management construct. That’s some of the consulting work I do for zeb/ (http://www.zeb.de/)

Now competencies have something in common with innovations. Consider how differs an invention from an innovation? An invention requires no economic success. We know from the manufacturing industry that on average you need to invent 200 products before you have one, which can be considered an economical success. Research was trying hard to find out what makes you innovative and developed input measures, output measure and outcome measures – none of them being able to accurately predict the innovation capability. This is due to the fact that the process of innovation production can only be formalized to a certain degree with innovation’s major ingredient remaining self-organization.

Self-organization describes the process of self-directed organization of resources available and applying these to a context. I can see how a human capital inventory could serve as a resource but not as context. From what I understand thus far, a human capital inventory is an aggregated version of elsewhere distributed information about us. And to me it is not so much about us displaying how great, sad, skillful, competent or incompetent we are, but being able to individually organize according to the context we find ourselves in at any given moment in time and space. Thus, enriching the context in relevancy and accuracy without adding clutter is key. However, there are many obstacles on the way recommender systems try to deal with already and many of them are shared by the tagging paradigm altogether. Folksonomies are nothing but topic dirt tracks for example and as long as we haven’t figured out how to extract meaning out of them in any specific context we will have tag clouds as a nice-to-have-feature but not as a solid method for serendipitous innovation.

I think mashups have shown the way how context can be utilized for value-added information and websites have to become even much more modular and exchangeable. I am surprised with the fact to still have discussions in forums not supported by a context-filtered twitter feed - even though this approach provides the opportunity to invite members of the twitter community to the XING network – good from the perspective of the XING business. From the perspective of the user it automatically enriches the context of the discussion holding opportunity for serendipitous knowledge spill-overs.

We shouldn’t center the discussion on us and on the trail we leave but how to pick up on what we consume and produce and consequently applying it to a context. While you seem to favor a centralized solution with a human capital inventory, I believe context can come in a variety of ways so that it can only be supported adequately by mashing up distributed instances of information and people. Trying to aggregate a person’s life context into a human capital inventory, to me seems not to be the most urging problem since the information is already available – it is just distributed and not as easily connectable as we wish right now. Solving this problem, to me, is the more urging building lot.

Kind regards,

8:03 AM  

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