innovation means learning at work

“So it is important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all philosophy in terms of successful innovation. The one constant is that you have to be open to change and new points of view. Innovation is continuous.

Successful innovators and entrepreneurs all embrace change and the risks that they pose. In fact, innovation is the poster child of the mantra that there are no rules. Only by trying out new things, by failing, by discovering what works and what doesn’t, do you gain answers to the innovation question.” —Shaun Coffey

This is a continuation of my last post, where I said that innovation and personal knowledge mastery were interconnected. Innovation has been described as a combination of observing, questioning, experimenting, and networking. This correlates with the Seek > Sense > Share framework in PKM.

Innovation and Learning

Practising PKM as a flowing series of half-baked ideas can encourage innovation and reduce the feeling that our exposed knowledge has to be ‘executive presentation perfect’. Workplaces that enable the constant narration of work and learning in a trusted space can expose more implicit knowledge. Organizations can foster innovation by accepting that collective understanding is in a state of perpetual Beta. A culture of innovation can be created by changing daily behaviours, such as incorporating practices like PKM.

Innovation is not so much about having ideas as it is about connecting and nurturing ideas. When we remove artificial boundaries, we enable innovation. In complex situations, where various people are working on similar problems, it is important to know who has done what. The challenge for distributed teams and organizations is to find ways of understanding what is happening throughout the system and ensuring it is communicated within the network.

The connection between innovation and learning is evident. We can’t be innovative unless we integrate learning into our work. Here are some questions that the practice of PKM can address:

  • How do I keep track of all of this information?
  • How do I make sense of changing conditions and new knowledge?
  • How can I develop and improve critical thinking skills?
  • How can we cooperate?
  • How can I collaborate better?
  • How can I engage in problem-solving activities at the edge of my expertise?

We seek new ideas from our professional social networks and then filter them through more focused conversations with our communities of practice where we have trusted relationships. We make sense of these embryonic ideas by doing new things, either ourselves, or with our work and project teams. We later share our creations, first with our teams and perhaps later with our communities or even our networks. We use our understanding of our communities and networks to discern with whom and when to share our knowledge.

working out loud

One challenge of finding new knowledge is that social networks are comprised mostly of non-core knowledge. There is often more noise than signal. However, given their diversity, social networks are where we can find innovative ideas. This is why PKM skills are so important for organizations today. Testing new knowledge is where communities of practice can be handy. Gaining competitive knowledge is the obvious return on investment for fostering internal and external communities of practice.

So here is a clear value proposition. Communities of practice act as filters of new knowledge in order to find competitive knowledge for your organization. People who understand the context of the work teams must participate in communities of practice, as only they can identify what new knowledge could be competitive. That means that those doing the work need time and support to get away from their teams and see the bigger picture.

Innovation at Work

Steven B. Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, observed that, “innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas” and that the “secret to organizational inspiration is to build information networks that allow hunches to persist and disperse and recombine”. The network era workplace requires both goal-oriented collaboration and opportunity-driven cooperation, because complex problems cannot be solved alone. Implicit knowledge, that which cannot be codified or put into a database, needs to flow. Social learning, developed through many conversations, enables this flow of implicit knowledge. This is not ‘nonsense chat’, as traditional management might view it, but is essential for creating stronger bonds in professional social networks. Companies have to foster richer and deeper connections which can only be built over time through meaningful conversations. Social learning in the workplace is necessary for any business.

Narration is making implicit knowledge (what one feels) more explicit (what one is doing with that knowledge). Also known as ‘working out loud’, this can be a powerful behaviour changer, as long-term bloggers can attest. Narration can take many forms. It could be a regular blog, sharing day-to-day happenings in activity streams, taking pictures and videos, or just having regular discussions. Narrating work also means taking ownership of mistakes. This requires a culture of openness: making sure that sharing is the default mode for all communications. But people inside organizations, and within professional communities, are often afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, even when the data are overwhelming. The power structure exerts great pressure to conform. Only organizations that share power and encourage conflict can advance different ideas. Openness alone cannot drive change.

With +3 billion people connected by the Internet, we are entering a post-industrial network era. Effective knowledge networks are composed of unique individuals working on common challenges, together for a discrete period of time before the network shifts its focus again. We are moving from a ‘one size fits all’ attitude on work and learning to an ‘everyone is unique’ perspective. The network enables infinite combinations between unique nodes. This connectivity is resulting in an increasing number of discoveries from non-traditional areas. In addition, in a networked world where everyone is unique, there is little need for generic work processes (jobs, roles, occupations) and no need for standard curricula. Institutions, and their mindsets, will collapse. This includes process improvement.

Process improvement is a tool set, not an overarching or unifying concept for an organization.  Process improvement is a means and not an end in itself. The fundamental problem with process improvement methodologies is that you get myopic. Methodologies like Six Sigma are great for speeding up assembly lines or minimizing errors, but they fail to produce new ideas.

New ideas come from openness. In complex and changing markets, innovation has much higher business value than merely coordinating internal tasks or improving processes. In trusted networks, openness enables transparency, which in turn fosters a diversity of ideas. Supporting the creation of social networks can increase knowledge-sharing which can lead to more innovation, because chance favours the connected organization.

We are all Innovators

Instead of asking what have you done for the company this week, we should be asking: What ideas you have had and what have you done to test them out? It might get us away from measuring and doing things that should be automated in the first place. Automation is not a bad thing if you know what to do with the extra time it provides. Organizations need more innovation catalysts. For example, Domino’s Pizza used the PKM framework to make learning a real-time activity within the flow of work in order to develop innovation catalysts.

“Catalysts are bound to rock the boat. They are much better at being agents of change than guardians of tradition. Catalysts do well in situations that call for radical change or creative thinking. They bring innovation, but they’re also likely to create a certain amount of chaos and ambiguity. Put them into a structured environment and they might suffocate. But let them dream and they’ll thrive.” —The Starfish and the Spider

innovation catalyst

An organization that accepts a certain amount of ambiguity can follow my suggested Principle of Network Management, as opposed to scientific management:

It is only through innovative and contextual methods, the self-selection of the most appropriate tools and work conditions, and willing cooperation that more creative work can be fostered. The duty of being transparent in our work and sharing our knowledge rests with all workers, especially management.

scientific management

F.W. Taylor’s Principle of Scientific Management (1911)

Innovative and contextual methods mean that standard processes do not work for exception-handling or identifying new patterns. Self-selection of tools puts workers in control of what they use, like knowledge artisans whose distinguishing characteristic is seeking and sharing information to complete tasks. Equipped with, and augmented by, technology, they cooperate through their networks to solve complex problems and test new ideas. This only works in transparent environments.

Innovation is not about smart individuals but rather is a distributed network activity. Therefore it is critical for enterprises to nourish their communities of practice and social networks.

6 Responses to “innovation means learning at work”

  1. Chris Barker

    Harold, I have a question. I love reading about the way sharing through networks is invaluable for creativity and problem solving.

    ‘Trusted networks’ seem a sensible climbate, where ideas are shared liberally and mutually.

    Do you think there are any circumstances where social networks should protect themselves, from others who may wish to take without sharing, perhaps to compete with and get a short term one over on the sharing economy? Or can openness triumph over that too?

    • Harold Jarche

      I think that offering a safe place to share ideas without intimidation is what a good community of practice should offer. Social networks are more open, and with that comes more disruptive behaviour because there are fewer shared objectives.


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