The learning innovator (1/3)

The learning company

“The one common ingredient across successful and innovative organizations is the commitment to learning” claims Bradley Bendle in Learning cultures and innovation.

Previously in 1973, Donald Schon linked the increasing change of our environment with the need for learning: “We must become adept at learning to be able to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and requirements, but also to invent and develop institutions which are ‘learning systems’, systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation.”

It was followed by various writings and references:

  • Peter Senge explored ‘The art and practice of the learning organization” in 1990, and claimed that “Learning organizations are organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create… , where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

  • The “learning company” was defined by Pedler in 1991 as “an organisation which facilitates the learning of all of its members, and continuously transforms itself in order to meet its strategic goals”.

    Pedler draw 11 characteristics of the learning company:

More recent developments in thinking have come around the concept named by Robert Putnam as social capitalconsisting of “the stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual understanding, and shared values and behaviours that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible”.

Imagining the future Operating System for innovation, I was thinking of a living innovation, that would improve continuously through interactions with its ecosystem of creators, partners, customers, developers, …

Now thinking of the learning company, I was wondering: am I a learning innovator? Did I improve my innovation OS over time? What did I take from the innovation projects I have lead in the past years to transfom myself to better innovate? How to continually expand one’s innovation capacity?

To answer these questions, I decided to candidly go through recent innovation designs I have headed.

1st case study: transferring concept in elegant design

Transferring an idea in an elegant relization is not easy, that’s what the first innovation sample told me!

The first example comes back to 2008.

We had a wonderful concept: our online service would enable people to handle temporary groups of friends out of their social network, as a partial overlay of their complete social network. It would be very straightforward to set-up, and it would offer a private space to the group members. The base line was: “a place for us!“.

Think of the group of friends which are created in the perspective of a wedding: they represent an extract of your complete network, they are very active because they’ve got so much to organize before the ceremony (bachelor and bachelorette parties, collective wedding present, speeches) and so much to share after; they develop intense ties, which eventually erode as daily life starts again. Wedding was the typical use case, but we assumed by extension our concept would apply to celebrating birthdays, hooking up with old friends, preparing a group journey, …

In addition to the web service, people could share a personal telephone number, figuring group identity, enabling to set up conference call, and to leave messages on the voice recorder that all group members could listen to, text, and answer to.

We had a great design: one could create groups very easily dragging items from activities (status) or from contacts of his address book, and dropping them in the instantly created group (somewhat similar to what Google designed with its circles, 3 years later in 2011 😉 ).

Innovation is a collective adventure

So what went wrong? We never managed actually to deliver a great customer experience in the prototype release, in consistency with our graphical design: response time was absolutely too slow to pass the beta stage.

The distance between design team and development team had been too long. Though I was trying my best to pass all the information from one to another, using clear wireframes and graphic designs, I realized as shortcoming were arising, how implicit valuable knowledge was endlessly lost. It was like bailing out in a sinking ship.

Learning #1 was easy to derive: innovation is a collective adventure with knowledge circulation at the cornerstone.

What can we do to monitor the process? Approches to ensure a cyclic flow of knowledge are based on concurrent design, in a “rugby approach“, consisting of:

  • making the innovation team act as an integrated entity and not like in a relay race;
  • having all team members feeling they contribute to the same project, and form a “knowledge creating” team where the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

Customers and partners belong to this knowledge circulation loop in the future innovation Operating System.

Learning #2: there was another interesting learning under the wood! Killing an innovation project is not easy, but it is much better than putting it on a drip or leaving into coma.

One must accept failure in the innovation path as it’s actually a great source of practical lessons, and have no fear in nailing the colours to the mast.

Even more, one must “celebrate failure” as they apply at Gore: “Celebrate failure, don’t stigmatize it. When a project doesn’t work out and the team kills it, they celebrate with beer or champagne just as they would if it had been a success. Celebrating a failure encourages risk taking.

The learning innovator – part 2 –>


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