On “lead users” and “generalists”

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In my ongoing struggle to define a sense of “innovation” I can get behind, a couple recent readings have been a great help…

Mike Caulfield provides a detailed and impressively well-grounded follow-up to Jon Udell’s riff on Eric von Hippel’s notion of user-driven innovation. By all means, read the whole thing, but a few of my favorite passages:

Look under between 75% to 80% of all major innovations, and this is the story you find again and again, from the first heart-lung machine, to the development of wider skateboards, to protein-enhanced hair conditioners. On the web, people were running makeshift blogs well before Blogger, net-sync’ed folders well before Dropbox, video + question sequences well before Coursera. What smart companies do, for the most part, is not “innovate” but find what “lead users” are hacking together and figure out how to make that simpler for the general population to tap into. Research often plays its most important role after the fact, not in producing designs, but allowing us to determine which lead-user designs work best, and to understand what, exactly, is making them work.

…most of the practice that Blackboard codifies (and the rudimentary architecture to support it) was developed outside of Blackboard by user innovators. And that’s fine. But the message Blackboard sent (and I think intentionally sent) over the years to skittish administrators was “Now that we’ve offered these innovations in the product itself, you can rein in all your experimenters and put them back in the box.”

...If we wish to engage in ongoing innovation, we need to focus on generating conditions that foster more communities of more such people, not less. That means making sure that educational technology is as hackable as farm equipment, shampoo, and skateboards. That means choosing technology for your campus based on what your most creative and effective users need, so that they can advance your local practice, and steering away from lowest common denominator technology. It means looking to our practitioners to lead the way, and then asking industry to follow. And ultimately it requires that we cease to see innovation as a set-and-forget product we buy, and engage with it as a process and a culture we intend to foster.

I seems to me that one of the grave strategic errors in recent higher educational history is the neglect of the innovators in its own ranks. One of the saddest ironies in this sad story of missed opportunity is how many gifted educational technologists have been undermined by the deficiencies of the enterprise software that they have been forced to support.

Having had the good fortune to work closely with Novak Rogic for nearly a decade, I came to see him not only as a highly skilled and creative technologist, but as a truly unique thinker with a contrarian vision honed out of lessons learned from countless projects.  I found myself thinking of parallels to Mike Caulfield’s post when reading some of Novak’s recent posts… I think his assessment of the dysfunction baked into administrative structures overseeing technology is devastating and dead-on:

In the case of higher-ed, especially with its large, cubicle-seated, vertically organized groups, there is a strong trend to divide technology into The student learning management system (LMS) that covers “all” students’ teaching and learning needs, and into The content management system (CMS) that, managed by marketing people, is meant for “administrative” websites. And, of course, research is under a separate VP and thus needs to have its own systems and staff. And so on, for all the lovely silos. The more broken down, the merrier; this system creates more bureaucracy, more reporting and analysis. It is disconnected both from within itself and from its users, so it requires more staff to keep it going, more managers and more analysts.

And of course, us superfluous technology managers and analysts (authors note: OUCH!) too often see the people with the broadest technology skills merely as functionaries tasked with implementing our committee-vetted organizational and strategic objectives, too often cutting off a vital source of creative input, and wasting buckets of funds in the bargain:

We kill creativity and innovation, while we are supposed to support it. By stripping down web developers to the role of only coding whatever project manager or business analyst requires (and because managers and analysts are not creators and producers, they are not in business of inventing, hacking, dreaming and designing), we kill the much needed seeds of agility and entrepreneurship and we leave very little room for linchpins in us, with hard and practical skills.

Novak takes up the theme of “generalists” in a follow-up post:

Here is a question for you: is thischangedmypractice.com (TCMP) a research, marketing, teaching and learning website or professional development tool? I would argue it is all of the above! It is written by medical practitioners, discusses various health issues in an open environment, and contributes to the general public’s knowledge and understanding of those issues.

It is a great marketing website as well – it has thousands of subscribers, it created quite a buzz in the medical community, it shows up high in Google searches. By driving a lot of traffic to UBC, it promotes the University’s work, excellence, impact and value to the community… and attracts potential students!

The best possible marketing for the university is the work of its peopleso let’s make more of that visible. By doing so, we are also helping faculty, staff, and students promote their work and build portfolios and future careers. We are contributing to the public domain and sharing knowledge that would otherwise stay locked behind the secure doors of a closed LMS and then erased at the term’s end.

“The best possible marketing for the university is the work of its people – so let’s make more of that visible.”  And if that’s not enough, how’s this for a kicker, where I think Novak’s description of the “generalist” sits well beside Mike’s description of the “lead user”:

generalists are not paralysed by too narrow of job description; with their many different skills are able to draw subtle connections between marketing and research, learning and networking. They can design balanced interfaces, and continually deepen and enrich the interactions around knowledge that is created, nurtured and shared in open, and provide a fantastic opportunity for the university to (besides saving tons of money on waste) promote itself in a more meaningful and community-oriented way, reinvent itself and at least try to find its niche in the new rich online landscape that seems to be reshaping fast and getting ahead of us at an accelerated rate.

Novak and Mike are just two of my favorite thinkers that I will be seeing this week in Utah. Maybe I’ll have my own contribution to this discourse when that particular maelstrom hurls me back up.

7 thoughts on “On “lead users” and “generalists”

  1. It’s a good connection actually, and one that I’ve seen von Hippel talk about. The problem with knowledge is much of it is tacit and local and resists transfer to others (and certainly resists centralization). So put a great teacher in a room with a great computer programmer, and often you’ll produce a really crappy product. As Burtis pointed out in a recent post, this stuff is emergent and opportunistic, traditional project structures can kill it. The same is true with coordination — it slows down the pace of iterative improvement etc.

    This is why, according to von Hippel, that so many lead users straddle worlds. Weirdly, although a great teacher and a great programmer often produce crap, get one person who is half-decent at teaching and programming and they can often work wonders. The heart-lung machine is also an example — Gibbon actually did much of the engineering himself: http://www.todaysengineer.org/2003/Sep/history.asp (before IBM showed up). Big innovations require intimate knowledge of both problems and technological possibilities — when one person knows the problems and another the opportunities communication works against innovation.

  2. this is why I’m pretty stoked about some pending announcements – combining teaching/learning/research into one boiling cauldron and seeing what kinds of awesome goo pour out after it’s cooked.

  3. I’m intrigued by von Hippell’s work and how the idea of user-driven innovation fits with the notion of generativity. I’ve recently read Jonathon Zitrain’s “Future of the Internet (and how to stop it)” and have been thinking of generative technologies which give end users enough flexibility to repurpose the technology to fit their needs; often creating something new and unanticipated as a result. Seems that there is a natural connection/overlap between the 2, especially when I read Mike’s point: “That means making sure that educational technology is as hackable as farm equipment, shampoo, and skateboards.”

  4. I’ve always approached my work in edtech according to Heinlein’s rule:

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

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