Isaac Newton, in a rare moment of humility, acknowledged the contribution of others in his many achievements through the famous statement that he was ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. However, his insight should not be withheld for our historical heroic individuals – it applies to us all. And yet we seldom realise that this is the case as most of our histories tend to be about those individuals (almost always the successful ones) rather than the wider community within which they operate. Yet, they are, by definition, just the tip of the iceberg.
We’ve been arguing for some time that all innovation is fundamentally collaborative, and I believe it is becoming more so, given increasing specialisation in all domains. It may be possible to invent an idea or concept as an individual, though this always builds upon the work of others. But more importantly, to realise commercial or social value, requires input from many other people – both seen and unseen. And yet the finance, support and infrastructure for innovation in the UK (and elsewhere) tend to be mostly focussed upon the individual (person or organisation).
I’m particularly interested in the space between the individuals, or the ‘interaction’ within an innovation community. This interplay between participants has an inbuilt feedback mechanism or ‘iteration’ which is a hallmark of the design process and is essential in successful innovation. Good innovations don’t just rise to the surface naturally without the momentum of a wider community of advocates. Returning to science for a moment, modern physics is clear that the world works very differently at different scales. The laws that are true of atoms and sub-atomic particles do not ‘aggregate up’ to apply to larger masses and structures where entirely new emergent phenomena occur at larger scales e.g. magnetism. The same applies to groups and communities.
Therefore, I’m trying to get up to speed on the work of Burt, Gravenotter and Wenger to understand the sociology or anthropology of groups and networks. However this appears to be at an early stage of development and a fruitful strand of research. One of the evaluation techniques we are using in several of our Connect projects, Corporate Connections and RSA 360, is the use of video ethnography to observe and track the development of diverse range of participants seeking to innovate collaboratively. I think this will be fruitful and will reveal insights not obtained through traditional quantative or qualitative techniques.
But I am beginning to realise that we lack a vocabulary to even talk about group dynamics properly. Can anybody please provide me with examples of case studies that capture the essence of group dynamics (both positive and negative) that properly explain the emergence of collaborative innovation, rather than simply telling the stories of heroic individuals or aggregating individual behaviour?