Friday, July 01, 2011

Are you Experienced?

There are several movements or phenomena underway right now that strike me as "important". Two of those that are near and dear to me are innovation and social media.  Both are especially interesting and vibrant, and both are full of promise and yet are potentially hollow.

Innovation is gaining traction for several reasons.  Businesses want more innovation because they've picked all the low hanging fruit, wrung all the efficiency from their existing businesses and face consumers who want new, shiny things.  Businesses that rest comfortably on their existing products and services will be left puttering in the right lane of the historical superhighway, with a safe view of the crazy innovators flying by in the passing lanes.  Some of those crazy innovators will inevitably crash and burn, but some will create a new product or service so compelling that it radically changes the market, and endangers the safe, plodding firms and industries. 

Governments, increasingly want more innovation.  No longer can we justify a $400 hammer, or spend money as if we print it (well, you get the point).  As the boomers age and people place higher and higher demands on government programs, governments across the globe must become more innovative in the way they obtain funding and deliver services.  Constituents understand the power of innovation in the private sector and expect to see the same advances in the public sector.

Consider as well social media.  From the first instances of blogs, to Facebook and now on to Twitter and a host of other applications which encourage and foster virtual communities, the explosive growth of social media is unparalleled.  Recently it was announced that if Facebook became its own country, it would be the third most populous country in the world.  Not too shabby for a website that was developed less than a decade ago.

But both of these nascent phenomena demonstrate, at least to date, the triumph of hope over experience.  Granted, the skills and techniques for innovation aren't new, and people have been dreaming up new ideas since the dawn of time, but real, involved innovation as a core focus is new in business and in government.  There's simply not a lot of experience doing good innovation work, and much of what you'll see and hear about are the few successes, rather than the catastrophic failures.  The same fact is true in the social media world.  Simply put, this is an entirely new capability, and the rules are being written as new capabilities and technologies unfold.  A deeply experienced social media expert is someone who built a blog site a few years ago and tweets regularly.  They don't, and we don't, have any real understanding of how all of social media fits into life and into business.

What's missing from both innovation and social media is deep experience, and one can argue that there are benefits and drawbacks from that lack of experience.  The benefit is that we don't rely on "old" thinking when we innovate, and we certainly can't rely on old methods for social media.  I chuckle when I listen to people comparing social media to broadcasting, or other known entities.  We are casting about for models to begin to understand how to manage and model social media.  It may be that we have to define the models as we build the businesses.

The drawback is that there aren't many "gray heads" deeply involved or engaged in either phenomena.  I think especially of social media here.  Ask a question on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, and you are likely to get an answer, but that answer comes with a caveat - most of the people answering are self-described experts who are technically savvy, but not necessarily life-savvy.  Many of our most experienced citizens aren't as active, or active at all, in social media or innovation, and we risk missing a tremendous amount of knowledge and insight since they aren't as engaged.  The number or breadth of answers to a question on social media or the number of ideas generated in an innovation effort aren't as important as getting the best answer, or finding the right idea, and at least some of that success is based on life lessons, experience and deep knowledge.  Too often what passes for knowledge on social media or good ideas in innovation are concepts that thrive only in the shallow end of the pond, unaware of the dangers that lurk in the deeper end.  Only people who have been to the deep end know what lurks there, and how to deal with what lurks there.  Shallow end thinking is thinking, but it may not be the best thinking.

So, who is experienced, and does that experience come with a price?  Is social media and innovation less valuable than they could be because of the absence of people with experience, or should we simply expect to build experience as we exercise the tools?  At a minimum, everyone using social media and participating in innovation should understand that they are new tools, not completely understood, and often lack participation and involvement by the people most experienced in life.  Those lessons are hard-won, and we don't need to re-learn them.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:22 AM


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