Landing : Athabascau University

Ideas, collaboration, and innovation

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By George Siemens June 16, 2011 - 9:30am

It's always difficult to assess the trajectory and depth of change when you're in the middle of it. I wonder if people in the industrial revolution, American/French revolutions - or even in the long, steady progress of the scientific revolution - were aware of what they were witnessing. Revolutions look so neatly packaged and defined, i.e. "the industrial revolution started with the development of..." when seen in reverse. In contrast, revolutions are experienced chronologically. The full weight or impact of specific innovations or new ideas are often not known for decades or centuries.

Since the early 1990's, I've heard a fair bit of hype around how the internet (and then the web, then web 2.0, now social media, and tomorrow "big data") would impact society and businesses. Frances Collins (director of the human genome project) made a statement to the effect that we "overestimate the short term impact of technology and underestimate its long term impact". It seems that someone has to declare "blogging is dead" or "web 2.0 is dead" or "[insert hype term] is dead" before the real work actually begins. We have to move past hype and get to some level of institutionalization of new technologies and new concepts. Once this happens, the tools or concepts become part of the "work flow process". Elearning or blogging or collaborating are no longer seen as separate activities - they are subsumed into existing work practices. I can't speak for Jon and Terry, but my goal with the Landing as a collaborative tool for AU is to achieve a level of institutional adoption that follows and allows the extension of existing work-related activities. Obviously, a similar level of adoption for teaching and learning is also desirable. 

It is this stage - where new technologies change practice and changed practices in turn alter organizational structure - that fascinates me. It's now quite fashionable to call higher education either "the next bubble" or "obsolete". What critics really mean, I believe, is that it's not higher education that is obsolete but rather the structure and manner in which it is delivered today needs to be rethought. Instead of working within the system, educators and leaders need to begin working on the system

This past week, I was at the Social Business Forum in Milan, presenting on Analytics in Learning and Knowledge (slides are here). While I don't advocate for the aggressive adoption of business practices in education, I did come away with numerous insights and adoption models of "enterprise 2.0" in different corporations. IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, Dell, Nokia, and numerous others corporations detailed how they were changing business practices to take advantage of new ways of collaborating and working together with employees and customers.

The focus was strongly on monitoring social media and encouraging engagement with customers. However, I found one session on how Scottish Water used new technologies to improve idea generation and sharing particularly enjoyable. The presentation demonstrated how companies are changing foundational activities in regard to leadership and new organizational initiatives. 

Scottish Water rolled out a Spigit site where employees could share their best ideas and vote on the ideas of others. As AU is currently in the SUP process, the concept of democratic idea generation, discussion, and rating seems relevant for us. Scottish Water found the first year of the project to be so successful (success defined as organizational improvements in operational efficiency, cost cutting, and employee satisfaction) that they have started to integrate the site into organizational strategic planning and long term corporate directions. 

Scottish Water reflects how dramatically roles are changing in companies. Web 2.0 and social media blur the roles between a producer and a consumer or between an editor and a reader. Companies that are adopting "crowd sourced innovation" or an enterprise 2.0 model see a similar blurring of roles between leaders and employees. In SW, for example, employees are given the opportunity to help direct and shape the future of the company, a far more participative role than is often found in established companies. Participative leadership, open innovation, and public idea generation and rating have changed the work culture at SW. It's too early to tell the long term impact of this change, but early indications suggest that organizations that fail to activate the brains of each employee in order to innovate and drive new ideas will fall behind companies with more progressive and participative cultures.


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