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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine

'Collaboration and Sensemaking' Archive


by ~ June 1, 2010

Today is the first day of my month-long fellowship at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, in the College of Fine Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

I am here at the invitation of Golan Levin, director of the studio and, back in the day, a former colleague at Interval Research. The fellowship is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Golan told me I could do anything I wanted, and so I invited Robin Gianattassio-Malle to come work with me on inventing a better way to help people learn and think about the consequences — both risks and benefits — of innovations in science and technology. We want to go beyond the usual binary, “fawning or damning” approach that dominates media coverage today, to actually informing people about these incredibly complicated issues.

I’m really excited about this project. It’s the first time in a long time I am going to have the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and do what I do best: to help people understand complexity in a way that is engaging, helpful and accurate. We are going to have to confront some tough design issues, but between us we have an amazing network to draw from.

Robin and I will be working at the STUDIO with two other fellows — Kyle McDonald and Jacob Tonsky — both of whom are wicked smart and from whom we expect to learn a lot.

We will be building a prototype over the next few weeks, and I will be posting updates about our progress. Yeehaw!


by ~ December 30, 2008

Going through old files the other day, I came across a MacArthur Foundation Occasional Paper that had a profound effect on my thinking about interdisciplinary research and collaboration.

Now 15 years old, An Experiment in Scientific Organization by Robert L. Kahn, is finally available online. It details the history and practices of the MacArthur Foundation’s long-running Research Networks — “a sustained experiment in the organization of scientific research,” as Kahn states in the paper’s introduction.

His observations are just as fresh and important as when An Experiment was published in 1993.

Anyone who has had difficulty making an interdisciplinary or cross-sector collaborative project work should prepare to have their mind blown by this paper. While there’s a lot of talk about the importance of collaboration across disciplines, there’s very little research activity that delivers on the promise. Interdisciplinary research is difficult, messy, and operates on an entirely different set of cultural rules than traditional research.

But through years of trial and error, the MacArthur Foundation finally hit on a network design that reliably produced significant results. Kahn’s paper details the process by which the Foundation came up with the right elements for a successful collaboration.

He also lists the developmental stages that a collaborative network goes through in order to hit its stride and start producing useful results, as well as the elements of a collaboration that have proven to be critical success factors.

No one really argues against Kahn’s point that “collaboration, within disciplines and between them, can enlarge scientific understanding, accelerate scientific achievement, and increase the contributions of science to well being.”

But while others pay lip service to the concept, his paper provides the guideposts for  designing a successful collaborative endeavor. It’s a tremendously useful document for anyone who is serious about making an interdisciplinary collaboration yield fruit.


by ~ December 9, 2008

I’m racing off to Stanford University for a conference honoring the 40th anniversary of Douglas Engelbart’s ‘Mother of All Demos.”

Called Program for the Future, the conference aims to explore ways to “enhance our capacity for problem solving, decision making knowledge organization and planning in every field of human endeavor.”

When I interviewed Engelbart on The Site (in 1996 I think it was, and also probably was my favorite interview of all time, he is such a tremendously humble and lovely man), this is how I introduced him:

The very act you are engaged in at this moment-reading and clicking through information on a computer screen-would not be possible if not for Douglas Engelbart. While working at Stanford Research Institute in the late 1960s, Engelbart invented or envisioned almost everything that makes personal computing possible today:  the computer mouse, hypertext links, groupware, on-screen editing and much more. But almost 30 years ago, few if any of his peers shared his vision.

That vision (which I also explored in an NYT column back then) was about the power of technology to enable what Engelbart calls “collaborative intelligence.” And while we are kind of banging our way toward it, his ideas for how technology could serve as the connective tissue between people and information was more methodical and directed than our haphazard efforts today.

I spoke at the 30th anniversary celebration, so it was nice to get a call on Friday from Etan Ayalon (CEO, GlobalTech Research) to join a last-minute panel he was asked to put together and moderate for the conference. We’ll be discussing collective intelligence in the context of one of my favorite subjects:  how to be innovative about innovating.

I’ll be joining Phil McKinney (VP and CTO of the Personal Systems Group at Hewlett-Packard and Dr. Larry Leifer (founder and director of the Stanford Center for Design Research, and founding director of the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning).

I thought I’d post the questions that Etan sent us to riff off during the panel, and my brief thoughts in response.

How do we best realize Doug Engelbart’s vision of combining people and technology to nurture innovation and better humanity, by addressing major challenges as well as creating new industries, products and jobs?

1. One problem at a time, using the right processes.
2. Need to improve the improvement/innovation process — the C-work, in Doug’s parlance.

•    Today we have pursuit of innovation without considering context. Often ‘solutions in search of a problem,’ instead of the other way around.
•    Pursuit of innovation in a solo inventor (or product development department, whatever) model leads to applying collective intelligence post facto; i.e., marketing department and customers aren’t part of the process
•    Context is also provided post facto, and selectively — usually by people with a specific and often narrow point of view
•    Context can only be accurately provided by others.

Is innovation a gift or a skill?

1. Both, and neither. Depends. Some people are natural outside-the-box thinkers. But the organization has to be designed to encourage exploration. And organizational design is a skill.
2. Why do you ask? The thoughts behind the question are as interesting as the question itself.

Is innovation an outcome or a process?

Personally I think it’s an outcome, but if it’s being done in an organization it’s more likely to happen if there are processes to support it. Again, what’s the motive behind the question?

Sharing the Benefits of Innovation for All, Not Just Lucky Digital Few - With an ever widening digital divide, how do we ensure that innovation benefits all segments of society in both developing and developed countries?

Process innovations can benefit everyone, I think. But with products, it’s more than a digital divide. Biotechnologies have this issue as well — expensive drugs, expensive seeds, etc. And we can’t ensure this without government intervention, at least not at first. I don’t think that’s how it works. But we can be thoughtful about how to stage innovations so they eventually get there.

Balancing Innovation Risks and Rewards – How? Who Should Participate in the Dialogue?

Who? All the relevant experts and stakeholders

How? By having the risk-reward conversation very early in the product development cycle. And by having a process that respects the question, which requires changing the R&D culture.

Also, we need to acknowledge that product innovation today in particular is more about driving profit than solving problems. This may need to be rethought if we are serious about creating a sustainable economy that isn’t wholly based on getting people to endlessly buy more stuff. It’s a very different risk-reward conversation when it’s framed that way.

Does innovation emerge from/require ambiguity and uncertainty?

Life is ambiguous and uncertain, which causes problems that need to be solved. So, yes. Also it emerges from the drive to improve, which some people have innately.


by ~ November 20, 2008

I don’t know what kind of planetary alignment took place over the past week with regards to synthetic biology, but whatever it was, I like it.

Over the course of five days in November, from Thursday the 13th to Monday the 17th, four conversations about synthetic biology took place. They involved everyone from non-profit leaders to engineers, social scientists, biologists and government regulators. We need more open-minded, smart people from many sectors thinking and talking about this technology, and pronto.

What on earth am I talking about? If you’ve never heard of synthetic biology, you aren’t alone. According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, less than one in 10 (9%) Americans say they have heard some or a lot about synthetic biology — and a whopping 67% have heard nothing at all. [Edited in response to first comment. Never let it be said that I do not listen to my critics.]

But venture capitalists, multinational chemical, energy and “life science” companies, and just about every government agency you can name are already investing millions of dollars to develop commercial synthetic biology applications. According to one report, the research market in 2006 was already $600 million, and “the potential for growth in the next 10 years is projected to expand this market to over $3.5B.”

Proponents and opponents and everyone in-between agree these applications will have a direct and significant effect on our lives and on the planet. (I’ve put links to good/accessible background reading at the end of this post.)

The first event was on Thursday the 13th, a day-long “teach-in” in San Francisco, held by and for civil society groups and NGOs, which as far as I can tell was organized by the ETC Group in Montreal. It was private, so there’s not much else to say about it — I found a link about it on the Food First site. If you want more information, contact Jim Thomas at the ETC Group.

The second, on Friday the 14th, was hosted by the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which was a conversation with — well, it was with me, actually, and Rick Weiss, a former senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (you may know him from his previous incarnation as the Washington Post science writer). The occasion was the publication of my paper on synthetic biology, which you can read or download here. Continue reading »


by ~ November 17, 2008

My next column in Strategy+Business (coming out in Winter 2009) will be about the need to rewrite our innovation policies from scratch. I strongly believe that we need to move beyond simplistic “greasing of the wheels” for corporations via tax credits and patent reform, and look more closely at how to create a whole new ecosystem in which innovation — and particularly, scientific and technological innovation — can flourish to everyone’s benefit.

In that regard, Barack Obama’s call for a return to scientific integrity is cause for tremendous hope for those who have spent eight long years battling the anti-science, anti-innovation era of the outgoing administration.

The very first item on the Obama campaign’s science fact sheet, which was published in September 2008, states that Obama’s science-friendly science policy will ensure that “decisions that can be informed by science are made on the basis of the strongest possible evidence.”

It goes on to say that the Obama administration will (among many other things):

  • Appoint individuals with strong science and technology backgrounds to key positions;
  • Take advantage of the work of the National Academies to identify the federal government positions that require a strong science and technology background;
  • Ensure independent, non-ideological, expert science and technology advisory committees; and (last but certainly not least from Hybrid Vigor’s perspective);
  • Actively encourage multidisciplinary research and education, noting that “innovation often arises from combining the tools, techniques, and insights from researchers in different fields.”

Yes! That’s what I’m talkin’ about! That last one even takes a page straight out of Hybrid Vigor’s mission statement.

But … I’m concerned that social scientists are not specifically mentioned anywhere in the policy fact sheet, either in spirit or in fact, not even in the last item. This is a serious omission as well as risky one, and unfortunately it is all too common in discussions of interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or cross-disciplinary research.

Social scientists can — and should — provide a critical bridge between innovation and the people that the products of innovation purport to serve. They can help policy makers think about the social and cultural context for research priorities and decisions in a way that technologists cannot, making sure that the “strongest possible evidence” that scientists provide is also the evidence that is most relevant to the decision at hand. Continue reading »


by ~ October 12, 2008

Managing Risk is Not Enough
Late last year, I sat in a meeting in which several bankers were present. During the meeting, one of the bankers said something that in retrospect belongs in the highlight reel of “famous last words.” The comment went something like this: “We’re bankers! We understand risk, because it’s our business. We know how to manage risk. That’s why industry and government are looking to us to solve risk-related problems.”

As ridiculous as this statement now seems (especially to those of us whose retirement funds have been decimated) I’d argue that the statement holds true—even in a grizzly market. Yes, good bankers do know how to manage risk—their own risk. Which is why the best investment bankers view a recession more like a sabbatical, while the rest of us have to figure out how to keep food on the table. And even as the government is coming to the rescue, the Fed won’t be doing the risk management part: they’re paying bankers to figure out how to get out of the mess they’ve created. Talk about a win-win!

Not that these guys aren’t suffering. Here’s a bit of anecdotal evidence of how bad things have gotten: Continue reading »


by ~ April 4, 2008

Innovation is the major strategic challenge for just about every organization today. But it is an elusive goal. This great post by Brad Kolar on his The Question of Leadership blog advises, “Want to innovate? Stop trying to be innovative and start solving problems.” He talks about the fact that successful innovation does not start intentionally. It starts by identifying hard problems and getting to work on them. Solving problems creates value.

This is a hard thing for organizations to swallow. They are accustomed to the command-and-control approach where making something a goal is the first step to getting it done. I’ve seen companies that have as a shared goal “to become more innovative.” This means that the personal goals of everyone in the organization include something about “being more innovative.”

But a manager cannot order someone to innovate! He or she has to create the environment where there is enough freedom and the right resources so that their employees can and will innovate. In this view, the manager’s role is to help frame the problem, convene the conversation and get the right people to the table. Continue reading »


by ~ March 31, 2008

Larry Downes had a great blog post a couple weeks ago on The Writers Strike and the Battle for Virtual Value. Downes points out that the traditional media, with whom the writers were negotiating, have not figured out how to make money on the internet. Nevertheless, he asserts, they spent over $2 billion fighting about “revenues that do not yet exist from channels that have not yet been created.”

Contrast this with the recent New York Times editorial by songwriter and author Billy Bragg, The Royalty Scam. Bragg tells the story of Bebo, the social-networking site that grew to 40 million members in two years and, in Britain, apparently ranks with MySpace and Facebook in popularity.

A couple years ago, Bebo founder Michael Birch asked to meet Bragg after Bragg had lobbied MySpace on its proprietary rights clause. Birch assured him that Bebo would always put the interests of artists first—although this “support” never included any kind of royalty to the artists contributing content. Last week, when Bebo sold to AOL for $850 million, Bragg observed:

The musicians who posted their work on Bebo.com are no different from investors in a start-up enterprise. Their investment is the content provided for free while the site has no liquid assets. Now that the business has reaped huge benefits, surely they deserve a dividend. Continue reading »


by ~ March 21, 2008

I resolved to start blogging about intangibles when I read a recent article in Fortune about soybeans called, “How Brazil Outfarmed the American Farmer.” The article explained how the Brazilians have used cutting-edge technology and well-designed market networks to become a dominant player in the soybean market. I saw this as just the latest proof that, as Thomas Friedman put it, “The World Is Flat.”

I believe that we have a lot of work to do to learn how to manage the intangibles that determine the winners and the losers in this “flat” world. And the American farmers are just the latest in the long line of businesspeople on the losing end of the intangibles game.

Fortunately, around the same time, I met Denise Caruso, who runs the Hybrid Vigor Institute and edits this blog. We became acquainted after she wrote a wonderful piece in the New York Times, “When Balance Sheets Collide With the New Economy” which highlighted the inadequacy of financial reporting to deal with the knowledge economy.

Denise explained how knowledge intangibles are invisible in financial and managerial reporting. They are also often passed over in decision making—in the assumption that “soft” issues cannot stand up to the rigor of traditional analysis.

But it is the soft issues that count. Continue reading »


by ~ February 8, 2008

The U.K.’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) functions something like the late lamented U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, killed off by Newt Gingrich back in the ’90s. They regularly publish brief but fairly comprehensive, interdisciplinary reports with cross-sector relevance on trends in science and technology.

POST recently published three POSTnotes entitled “Ecological Networks” [PDF], “Smart Metering of Electricity and Gas” [PDF] and “Autism” [PDF]. The first two POSTnotes for 2008 were on “smart” materials and systems, and synthetic biology.

You can subscribe to the POST reports yourself, by sending an email to: mailto:[email protected].

“Ecological Networks” considers the possible conservation benefits of ecological network implementation in the UK. Ecological networks are intended to maintain environmental processes and to help to conserve biodiversity where remnants of semi-natural habitat have become fragmented and isolated. Continue reading »