Developing curiosity

Fred Hoyle, a UK astronomer, in 1957 published a science fiction novel called The Black Cloud (which is still available). One of the strands in it is about knowledge exchange and how difficult it is to imbibe new knowledge if it contradicts an existing paradigm that someone holds.

This can be a real issue for organizations trying to be innovative. It's not an easy task to think outside what is known because education, experience, and the current organizational form all conspire against us when it comes to predicting the future potential of a new idea. As someone said "Each acts as a funnel narrowing our field of vision so tightly that eventually we only see what is already behind us".

So how can organizations – or rather the people in them – overcome the heritage of what they have previously learned, what they already know, what the organization is set up to do? One thought is to help people develop the capacity of curiosity and 'conscious un-knowing'. (Dr Martin Seligman in a co-authored book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification discusses 24 character strengths, one of which is curiosity). While Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that people only become curious about something when they direct their attention towards it.

To develop curiosity try this exercise from the Authentic Happiness newsletter

During those times when you are feeling bored or unstimulated (e.g., while waiting in line at the grocery store), focus your attention on something that ordinarily might not engage your interest. For example, if you are at the grocery store, really notice how various customers interact with the checkout clerk. Are they making eye contact or averting their gaze? Do they make small talk? Do they offer to bag their own groceries? Notice how much effort you need to expend to focus your attention. Is it worth it? Is there a trade off between being bored (but with no demands placed on your psychic energy) and being interested?

Serious Games Institute

The University of Coventry in the UK opened the Serious Games Institute in fall 2007.

The Institute acts as a hub for 'serious games' (defined as digital computer games with an educational purpose) research and development and notes that:

The current main areas of application of serious games (and virtual worlds) are in the business and military sectors but there is also much interest in their use in the education sector.

A report published in co-operation with the Serious Games Institute in November 2008 Serious Virtual Worlds: A Scoping Study makes the point that

Immersive world applications achieve this mainly because they have the potential to support multimodal (using different senses) communications between learners; they set up the potential for problem – or challenge-based learning and offer the learner control through exploratory learning experiences.

While the spaces are excellent for bringing together the use of a range of different media (eg streamed video and audio, email, live chat, social network software and mind mapping software), questions remain as to how best to integrate these media to support the most enriched learning experiences, so more work is needed to identify the key strengths of learning in immersive worlds and guidelines are required to support practitioners and learners.

Additionally, Cisco is collaborating in a research project with the Serious Games Institute to explore the potential of smart buildings and campuses to support innovative and personalised learning. At the heart of this collaboration is the concept of a "smart building" as an intelligent agent that can learn about its visitors and stakeholders and respond proactively to deliver a rich experience based on knowledge of an individual's profile and location. They say that:

Over time, we envisage that the system will develop a profile of the visitor which not only delivers content most appropriate to the visitor's knowledge and preferences but also acts in a proactive way to connect the visitor to other people with similar interests or specialised knowledge.

These types of developments are likely to have huge impacts on the way organizations interact with stakeholders to deliver their products and services. It will be stretch for most of the traditional business models to adapt quickly enough to remain competitive.

Creative capitalism business models

In the call for 'beyond capitalism' businesses Bill Gates in a January 2008 speech at the World Economic Forum called for creative capitalism

"an approach where governments, businesses, and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world's inequities."

Going down this route has significant implications the businesses and for the organization designers supporting this level of change to the business model.

It means shifting from an over-arching purpose of 'making the numbers' to a an organizational purpose around social, moral, and environmental principles (many of them outlined in Adam Werbach's book Strategy for Sustainability).

The question is: "Is it feasible, or possible for existing businesses to make such a fundamental shift?" To answer: It's very unlikely as all aspects of an existing for profit, publicly owned companies are set up to maximize shareholder valuing and this is enforced through a variety of mechanisms – legal, regulatory, and so on.

However, a way to do this is for businesses either to establish parallel businesses set up on a new model – Grameen Danone is a much quoted example designed to support a dual model of for-profit and social/environmental purpose.

There are good examples of organizations that were established with the dual purpose framing the business model. Many are co-operatives for example, Amul an Indian milk farming co-operative and Organic Valley (a US farmer owned co-operative), other models are those of Triodos Bank or the John Lewis Partnership.

Trying to graft a new business model onto an existing one, or change an existing one to a different one is not a task for the faint hearted.

Future gazing

PWC's report, published in 2008, Managing Tomorrow's People: the future of work to 2020 outlines three plausible future worlds of work – derived from two surveys a) of 6000 graduates b) of CEOs.

They describe these scenarios as:

• The blue world: where the big capitalist company rules – controlling people and trumping states

• The green world: where sustainability, concern for others and environmental issues drive the business agendas

• The orange world: where collaborative, specialized organizational networks dominate the economy.

The report points out that none of these are givens but what the authors do suggest are givens are that the world will be more complicated, technology will advance faster, global expansion will continue, and people will become more demanding of employers as talent gets scarcer.

Any one of these three scenarios – or more likely to occur – a combination of the will force a change in business models. This is probably the most useful observation of the report as organizations as less likely to seek to change their business models than they are to try to re-organize or state a desire to 'change the culture'. Organization designers would do well to start prompting clients to consider the precepts of their business model as part of any design exercise.

Evaluating organization design

The Roffey Park Institute has just published a report 'Best Practices in OD Evaluation'. In this case the OD stands for 'organization development', but the discussion and recommendations hold just as much water for organization design.

In organization design work there is often little appetite to evaluate the success of the redesign. Companies who employ an outside consultant to assist with getting to the new design and then implementing it are reluctant to invite the consultant back 6 months or a year later to see whether it is achieving the intended outcomes.

Nevertheless getting an evaluation would be a sensible thing to do and the report outlines several reasons why:

• It focuses the project scope and the design work in the context of the business strategy, because it forces answering questions like 'why are we doing this?' 'how will we achieve the return on investment in doing it?' and so on.

• It defines success in both qualitative and quantitative terms, and ties it closely to achieving business objectives in best cases using measures that feed into the overall organization performance measures

• It puts the design work in a timeframe and helps the client see what results might be quick wins and what results will take longer to achieve and measure

• It places accountability for success in the hands of the client/sponsor – which usually means a close eye is paid to progress and quick decisions are made if called for.

• It fosters sharing of learning on successes and failures in organization design work – a neglected activity where evaluation is lacking.

• It enables issues to be identified and action taken as needed.

The report rightly points out that sound evaluation is not necessarily easy, but gives some useful ideas on how to approach it.

Collaboratories

A recent Business Week article discusses IBM's new venture into "collaboratories" reported that the company:

Hammered out six deals for collaboratories in short order-in Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, China, Ireland, Taiwan, and India. Four more are in the works. John E. Kelly III, director of IBM Research, says there's enough demand for 100 more tieups. "The world is our lab now," says Kelly. "I figure I can have a much larger impact on the company and our research if I operate this way."

By collaboratories IBM means forming research partnerships with outside agencies rather than doing their research and development work alone and in secret. This whole approach, a different take on open source, is an interesting one to watch as generates a range of questions, including:

• How will intellectual property rights be determined?
• How will IBM cope with scientific challenges and different ideas?
• How will joint research ventures be funded and staffed?
• How will partners be idenfied and selected?
• How do partners learn to trust each other and work collaboratively?
• How will individuals and teams be rewarded?

Answers to these questions are likely to result in a very different form of organization design that will start around the collaboratories but will inevitably impact the parent organizations.

New designs for education

A couple of articles have recently talked about new designs in education. Fast Company notes that:

The edupunks are on the march. From VC-funded startups to the ivied walls of Harvard, new experiments and business models are springing up from entrepreneurs, professors, and students alike. Want a class that's structured like a role-playing game? An accredited bachelor's degree for a few thousand dollars? A free, peer-to-peer Wiki university? These all exist today, the overture to a complete educational remix.

The architects of education 2.0 predict that traditional universities that cling to the string-quartet model will find themselves on the wrong side of history, alongside newspaper chains and record stores. "If universities can't find the will to innovate and adapt to changes in the world around them," professor David Wiley of Brigham Young University has written, "universities will be irrelevant by 2020."

Home schooling in the US has doubled in the last decade according to a report in the Economist, estimating that 3% of school age children are now educated at home – in part due to easy availability of information both to teach with and to swap information with other homeschoolers.

And in another Economist article there is a report on Quest to Learn "a new, taxpayer-funded school in that city (NYC) which is about to open its doors to pupils who will never suffer the indignity of snoring through double French but will, rather, spend their entire days playing games"

The article notes that much of the teaching will be transferred from teaches to the video games that students will learn through studying, in 90 minute blocks, various game based 'domains'

A recent 93-page report on online education, conducted by SRI International for the Department of Education, has a starchy academic title, but a most intriguing conclusion: "On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction."

This change in the way education is provided (and/or the way people learn) appears set to shake up traditional educational institutions in new and unpredictable ways. Their designs require radical rethinks if they are to compete with newer ways of educating.