Fringe benefits

Fringe_2  Please rest assured that the subject of this post isn’t veering wildly from the usual theme of collaborative innovation, to comment upon new trends in hair styling. People who have seen my hairstyles over the years will testify that this is not a subject I can claim to write about with any credibility. Rather, I return to the subject of celebrating fringe, or non-core, activities in stimulating innovation.

This subject is inspired by having just returned from a very interesting 2 day Triple Helix Summit in the US. The triple helix model of innovation seeks to harness the complementary expertise and resources of three sources: Industry, Academia and Government. And it’s potential to stimulate innovation and solve complex problems often occurs at the boundaries, or the fringes, of these three, very different institutions.

The conference was wide ranging and there were lots of very interesting presentations. It’s hard to summarise in it’s entirety by below are a few quotes that I picked up along the way and resonated with me for various reasons:

  • "What do we call collaboration in the classroom? Answer: Cheating." Lisa Galarneau
  • "Collaboration is the art of willing cooperation with the enemy." Leigh Jerome
  • "If we begin with certainties, we shall end in doubts; but if we begin with doubts, and we are patient in them, we shall end in certainties." Francis Bacon (alas Francis was not a delegate at the summit!)
  • "The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet." Bruce Sterling
  • "Rarely do you find a requirement for something that doesn’t exist yet." David Finegold

Also, there were a number of important discussions and insights into the following:

A good way to address barriers to collaboration

– The twoissues that kept being cited as barriers to open and  collaborativeinnovation were a) culture/trust and b) organisationalstructures/hierarchies. Lisa Galarneau pointed out that neither of these barriers exist, or not to the same extent at least, in virtual worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft.Here you have the opportunity to play in possibility space. What I meanhere is that these virtual worlds almost always require collaborationto get stuff done (slay a dragon etc) so you can take the opportunityto try hand at leadership or take on different roles in a group. Anadditional benefit is the flattening of the barriers with respect toage and cultures as well. Whilst the examples are ‘just’ games,increasingly companies like IBM use virtual worlds to supportcollaboration across their business and address these barriers withsome success.

Why do we have organisations anyway?

– Ron Coates won theNobel Prize for economics in the 1930s for describing the reasons thatorganisations exist are to minimise transaction costs due to economiesof scale. However, interestingly Kevin Maney argues that technology is now redefining the organisation astransaction costs are plummeting (in some cases to zero), which meansthat within an organisation transaction costs are now actually oftenhigher than outside – the complete reverse of the situation describedby Ron Coates in the days when many Corporate, Academic and GovernmentInstitutions were founded. It is exactly these challenges that we arefaced with and seeking to address through our Corporate Open InnovationProjects, but I’d never really thought about it in those terms.

What is the impact of technology upon places?

– Again, therewas a lot of talk about the impact of mobility, geo-presence and socialnetworks. When asked whether social networks are the new cities, Kevindescribed the fact that we are continually faced with choices whichtrade off between fidelity/quality verses convenience. E.g. the highfidelity or quality of going to see a live concert, verses buying themusic on iTunes. You can’t beat the face to face interaction that ourcities facilitate, but it is also usually less convenient thaninteracting via technology. Also, new technology is continuallyimproving both the fidelity and convenience all the time so our choicesin balancing these trade offs are changing. The impact on places wasmerely inferred that they need to respond accordingly and generallydeliver an increasingly high fidelity/quality experience. So the shortanswer is, no, social networks are the new cities, but they areaffecting the way we interact with places and will continue to do so asthe fidelity and convenience increases.

Finally, I’m pleased to say that the Connect narrative (recently rearticulated here)underpinned by the concept of extreme collaboration was well receivedand judging by the level of discussion and debate afterwards, it givesme further confidence that we are playing in an interesting, importantand evolving space. Finishing where I began, maybe looking outside ofcore business/activity of industry, academia or governments, and backat the fringes are back in fashion after all.


  1. I wish I had the opportunity to join you, sounds very stimulating! I am particularly taken with the observations regarding external transactions costs being lower then internal ones and the opportunity for virtual worlds to enbale the sort of extreme collaboration that is increasingly required but hierarchy and process hinder.I believe existing business models are a major barrier to innovation. We need a shift in thinking here to create more sustainable and agile busness models better suited to enable our future (temporary, evolutionary, inclusive) rather than our industrial past(permanent, fixed, exclusive).

  2. Thanks Brendan,
    I couldn’t agree with you more and these new business models are exactly what we are trying to explore and embed through some of our projects working with the likes of P&G, Oracle and others.

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