Thursday, January 19, 2012

Openness in Management Strategies

Although I am studying Instructional Psychology and Technology, most of my professional career has been spent in executive management in different business and education organizations.  One common concern that all business strategies need to address is the need for innovation and continuous improvement.  There are myriads of books, seminars, webcasts, podcasts, consultants, and firms who make a generous living selling their ideas (in publication and in person) to business leaders who are always wrestling with strategies to keep their business at the front of the market and their organization at the state of the art.

Most strategies die when they encounter the human nature that the employees, managers, and shareholders exhibit.  Change is never welcome, and ownership of product, market segment, or bureaucratic kingdom position are defended by those who perceive that they are the owner.  Innovation and change are threats to the status that people have obtained.  That threat is felt from the level of responsibility of the senior executive in the scope of the business, products, and marketplace to the level of responsibility of the clerical assistant concerning the processes and tasks that are the majority of their assignment and most of their daily work.  Change and innovation are always threatening.

As I have reviewed all of these materials on the "open" and "free" movements I have been struck by some thoughts these past two days.  We are wrestling with innovation initiatives in my current organization and we have had meetings, visits from outside consultants, and spent countless hours considering the changes that we might make to nurture more innovation.  We have failed to make great progress in anything other than talking about it.  Taking something from the theoretical (where everyone wants to talk about it) to the tangible implementation (where no one wants to DO IT) is the pattern that we see.  As Dr. Wiley highlights in his presentation on open educational resources ( policy protects the status quo.  Most policies in any organization, at any level, are largely designed to preserve things as they are because that is what they were meant to be.  Violating or changing policies changes the design of the thing to make it something else.

I have considered the patterns that I have encountered in nearly every place I have worked that have stifled innovation.  These last three weeks have given a voice to my analysis and synthesis of these observations.  The emergence of an open approach to improving things (software, education, etc.) that allows a larger community of developers to view and suggest improvement in the "thing" that is yours is the shortest, and likely the most successful, path to improving and innovating and making your "thing" better.  Too many managers become territorial and possessive of the thing that is theirs to manage.  Defensiveness and protection (copyright?) where change and improvement must be theirs to consider, design, and implement is a standard practice.  Their livelihood could be negatively impacted if they give control to someone else by seeking or (heaven forbid) implementing someone elses' idea about our "thing."
An open approach, where we seek the input from others, seems to be the best approach to making things better.  All that we have read and watched these last three weeks has caused me to believe that truly successful and timely innovation must be from openness and collaboration.  I am convinced that the impending threat and fear that openness brings to the creators (or the "owners") of things is that they will lose their specialness related to these things.  In our modern times it is that specialness that we believe put the food on the table and the roof over the head.  Everything that is uniquely mine to own and maintain, mine to control, is mine to exploit and to provide the necessities that will keep me secure.  

This is true not just of the creative works that we have been talking about in the oer class, but it is also true of the products we design, manufacture, and sell.  It is true of our positions in organization and the work that we do in those organizations.  It is true of our community and the position we hold in that community.  The more input or control we extend to others, the less special we are the greater the threat to our security.  That is the human nature that I believe plays into concerns about openness.  That is also the human nature that kills many of the greatest creative and innovative endeavors in the cradle, particularly if we are not it's parent.  Eastman Kodak invented digital camera technology in the 1970s, but they had the reputation for the best film.  What to do?

A community that shares with a common goal of improving the community will be the most innovative.  Such a community will only endure and thrive if that community is more concerned that the innovation needed is for the good of the community rather than the good needed for themselves.  Our survival instinct is very powerful.  Our ability to do something that makes us different than others seems to imbue us with a stronger feeling of a position of power.  If there is something vitally different and special about us then that makes our survival more critical than that of others.  If we lose that specialness, then we have no greater claim to power and survivability.  We become just like everyone else.  And at least in our human natures that seems to be threatening.  It is just safer to stay where we are and protect what we have then to try something new, even if there is greater benefit to all of us in doing so.  And particularly if it was someone else's idea.

Do we call it Linux?  Or is it GNU/Linux?  Perhaps it depends on who needs to retain that sense of "specialness."

1 comment:

  1. You probably know the saying, "There's no limit to the amount of good we can accomplish when we don't care who gets the credit." I know this isn't the exact point you're making, but it is definitely related. A large part of that feeling of "specialness" is getting patted on the back for what you've done - and those pats reassure us that our jobs are secure.

    It's probably true that the people who have the easiest time being open are those who already feel most secure. Is that good or bad?