Unleashing Innovation: The Structured Network Approach

This is a true story. Professor “Jones” decides to experiment with a blog in his class. It takes him about 10 minutes to set up a free site using Blogger. He then watches students engage in lively discussions of case studies outside of class, and tweaks the blog as experience teaches him how best to use the system.

Teaching with Technology column

Thinking that others might want to add a blog to their class as well, he goes to IT and offers to lead workshops for faculty on blogging in higher education. A few weeks later he is informed by IT that they have not only rejected his proposal, but that he is in violation of university policy and must stop immediately. Professor Jones asks what university policy he has violated, and is told that the policy has not yet been created, but will be soon. Professor Jones asks how he could possibly have violated a policy that does not yet exist.

Soon afterward the IT department announces a new initiative to implement blogging at the institution. A committee is formed, and after nearly a year of deliberation they choose to pay for a system—rather than adopt a free, readily available system—because it allows for centralized control. IT sends out an email announcing the new system, along with a text document outlining a long list of policies that strictly limit how it may be used. No one adopts the system, leading IT to complain that faculty do not want to use technology in their teaching.

Two Models of Control
Dave Snowdon, founder of Cognitive Edge, provides insight into what happened here. Colleges implement technology using the industrial revolution era top-down decision-making model drawn from the military. But it turns out that this model was never successful in war or business (let’s call it the General Motors model). Successful organizations like Google are built on a structured network approach—a bottom-up model that draws ideas from its constituents. Google gets many of its best products from engineers that fiddle with new ideas and discuss their projects in open forums. The forums provide for a public vetting of ideas, with the best floating to the top to be supported by the company.

The strength of a structured network is that it provides a medium to draw together the creative talents of its constituents. For instance, Wikipedia draws its content from thousands of contributors, yet has been proven to be nearly as reliable as the Encyclopedia Britannica because it has strict citation guidelines for contributions.

Snowdon points out that technology should come before planning. Often the true power of technology isn’t known until users make it their own. Facebook began as a way for Harvard students to connect with one another, but morphed into so much more.

Colleges do it backwards. They start by choosing one system and one way to use it and impose that on users. The smart institution will encourage instructors to try five different systems in five different ways and provide a forum for them to share their experiences. Faculty will see what their colleagues are doing and ask questions, thus generating interest in the technology. Best practices and systems will emerge from the discussion, at which point IT enters the picture to implement those systems that have been proven in the court of public opinion.

The structure of technology implementation is rarely discussed, but until colleges move away from the GM model and toward the Google model they will continue to waste time, money, and talent on initiatives that are bound to fail from the start.

As usual, I welcome your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage in the comments section of this blog.

See Dave Snowdon’s fascinating discussion of structured networks here.

John Orlando, PhD, is the Program Director for the online Master of Science in Business Continuity Management and Master of Science in Information Assurance programs at Norwich University. John develops faculty training in online education and is available for consulting at jorlando@norwich.edu.