Unconferences, Open Space, and the future of organizational innovation

Many young social and tech innovators believe that if people want to be innovative they have to get out of the organizations. Too much control and permission asking kill the spirit of innovation, as they say. Yet, organizations don’t stay immune to the impact of such tech-enabled, social life forms as communities of practice, knowledge networks, professional learning communities, open source innovation, innovation communities, etc…  In fact, visionary leaders sponsor them.

Business is pressed to innovate by the market forces. Disruptive innovation abounds in all industries. Parallel with that, in Enterprise 2.0, the new, lightweight tools for connections and collaboration are creating more opportunities to generate innovative ideas; and also, shared passion to realize them. Employees sharing information about themselves, their projects and interests, on their personal wiki pages of the corporate intranets, learn about each other’s work in a way that was not before possible enterprise-wide.

Innovation in the public sector is more timid and tentative but there are signs showing that it is not dead there, neither:  . Public service organisations may innovate more slowly than the private or social sector but their possible role in fostering innovation in society is not to underestimate.

An example of that is their role in sponsoring unconferences, these digital-age versions of Open Space Technology. I mentioned the role that the British government’s Office of the Third Sector play, here. Among other things, they co-sponsored the Social Innovation Camp. A dedicated chronicler of the “social innovation” scene, David Wilcoxreflected on it as follows. “It was quick. A small team were able to generate a lot of interest and support in just three months by using social media and the networks of people interested in its application to social innovation. This wasn’t just about speedy communications. There are now in London (and of course elsewhere) a cloud of people interested in social innovation who will go out of their way to make things happen and help each other.”

The SI Camp happened in real time, during two days in April 2008, but its impact is still reverberating and not only in the projects generated by it. The “Nine ways to steal this Camp” is an excellent summary of re-usable lessons learned from it, by the organizers. Here are some of the salient points:

Make use of all the brain power
At traditional conferences, as well as regular meetings in business and government organizations, most people are assigned to the role of “audience” and their creative contributions have very little room to play in. “This is what Clay Shirky calls ‘cognitive surplus’; a whole lot of minds are concentrated on one thing, but their responses and reactions are not being put to use. Social Innovation Camp began with the premise that we could do something useful with this cognitive surplus and get more people forming part of the proceedings rather than just sitting on the sidelines.”

What can organizations learn from unconferences about creatively unleashing their cognitive surplus?

Create moments of self-organisation
“Self-organising can be pretty exhausting – particularly when you’re working with people you’ve not met previously. By providing moments of self-organisation in between structured events you lessen the potential for this to become stressful.”

How would our organizations look like if their structure was light and optimized to support self-organization by their members?

Do rapid prototyping
Open Space and unconferences rarely create concrete outcomes that leverage the collective intelligence of the whole gathering. At the Social Innovation Camp, “Participants had to build a fully-fledged organisation in just 48 hours – including a prototype tool and plan for sustaining the idea after the event. At the end of the weekend teams had to Show and Tell  all the other participants what they’d produced. By giving everyone a common goal and a loose structure we focused collaboration towards a specific end in a very short period of time.”

Can you imagine how practice and theory of Presencing and its prototyping cycle could be enhanced if introduced in the autonomous zones  and infused by the energy of tech-savvy social innovators? What could become possible, how much farther and deeper the new initiatives could go if they were supported by Theory U , a “social technology of freedom?”

The importance of fun and fear
“When you ask people to give up their weekends for free, your event has to be enjoyable… At the end of the weekend, there was also a chance that you might be put under the spotlight to present what you’d built in front of everyone else. We managed to turn these potentially damaging features into positive driving forces behind the weekend thanks to the trust and goodwill of our participants conserved by making the event a really friendly, fun and welcoming experience.”

What if organizational innovation aimed at making regular work “a really friendly, fun and welcoming experience?” What could visionary business leaders and “organization design” consultants learn from social innovators?

In his blog, David Wilcox commented  on the significance of the SI Camp: “I believe that Social Innovation Camp, which I much enjoyed last weekend in London, will make a big difference in the way that we think about doing good stuff with new stuff. By that I mean not just how social media may be used by nonprofits for communication and collaboration, but how events are run, projects started and mentored – and how funders, sponsors and media partners consider where they invest time and money.”

One of the sponsors was NESTA , Britain’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts – a unique and independent body with a mission to make the UK more innovative. According to Wilcox, Roland Harwood of NESTA said about the Camp: “One of the big lessons for me of the weekend was how limited organisation can unleash ideas, which is counter-intuitive for many. There was so much energy and enthusiasm there was in all the groups compared with the large organisations and bureaucracies that normally try to solve some of these very same issues, but they tend to try to crack ‘nuts’ with a proverbial ’sledgehammer’.”

Clearly, there’s a huge gap between the organizational culture and structures inherited from the industrial era, on one hand, and the requirements and potential of 21st century organizing, on the other hand. It is that gap that CommunityIntelligence wants to help closing with a new event we started envision with other colleagues, which we call: Lead2Innovate4Change.

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