Thursday, 24 July 2008

Transformational change through Ideagoras

I (Allison) have been thinking about processes and environments that might support transformational change in approaches to learning and teaching. Recently I had a discussion with Anoush and Koos about the notion that Ideagoras could be potential incubators for ideas on learning innovation.

Ideagoras are online environments (usually wiki-based) where people (researchers and developers) can collaboratively develop ideas (Tapscott and Williams, 2007). Companies seeking solutions to difficult problems can post questions that are answered by experts tapping into the network. These experts are rewarded – often through cash incentives. Alternatively companies can post their Intellectual Property as a solution in search of a problem. This can lead to innovative applications and development of new products. An example of an ideagora is InnoCentive: an open innovation network aiming to ‘provide solutions to tough problems in business, science, product development’ (

Transformational change in higher education is often talked (and written) about yet seldom achieved. I was inspired by the paper by on ICT-Enhanced Teacher Innovation by Lina Markauskaite and Peter Reimann at this year’s EdMedia. Lina and Peter examined areas of innovation outside the educational sphere (for example engineering) to identify characteristics of effective innovation systems. In general innovations are:
1. grounded in basic research
2. horizontally oriented (for example user-doer networks)
3. modular (in terms of processes and products)
4. involve ICT
5. incremental (not disruptive)

Most of these characteristics align with our thinking on transformational change within the Caledonian Academy at Glasgow Caledonian University (UK):
1. All our initiatives are through action research, using principles and theories generated through basic research.
2. Our action research is horizontally oriented through joint ventures with colleagues in our academic schools as well as our industry partnerships.
3. The modularity of our approach to innovation is illustrated through our clustering of projects around the key themes of our learning, teaching and assessment strategy. These themes include learner autonomy/progression, work related learning and scholarship of learning and teaching.
4. Most of these initiatives have a strong ICT focus.
5. Interventions are incremental, based on an understanding of current approaches and behaviours.

Yet we are finding transformational change difficult to achieve. This brings into question the readiness of the organisation for change. We have invested considerable time and resource following Carol Twigg’s (2000) eight-step process, instilling a culture of readiness for change This includes establishing a sense of urgency, assemble a team to lead the change, creating a compelling vision of change, communicate the new vision, removing obstacles to change by encouraging risk., recognising and rewarding success, identifying people who can implement change and making changes part of the institutional culture for long-term transformation. Part of the problem is that the speed of change is so slow that it is difficult to detect.

Many papers on transformational change point to incremental change as being important. Yet when organisations try to achieve incremental change in learning there is often very little change at all. This may be because change within formal education tends to focus on content, packaging or delivery rather than approaches to learning. Markauskaite and Reimann suggest integrating epistemic approaches of practitioners and researchers as a potential solution. How might this integration be achieved?

Effective research-development partnerships are difficult to achieve, partly due to the different goals, values and discourse used by these research and development groups. How can we overcome the difficulties in bringing together different cultures and values of researchers and developers? One way forward could be through Ideagoras.

How could ideagoras support research-development partnerships? In particular how might they identify and expand ‘disruptive’ factors that bring about real change? Tapscott and Williams (2006) abstracted six general principles for success which provide a framework to think through how we could move towards integrating epistemic approaches of practitioners and researchers:

1. Move from ‘closed’ to ‘open’ innovation. In industry this usually involves moving from a closed, hierarchical workplace to an open self-organised, distributed and collaborative environment. Networks are an important component, since communities are too bounded and slow to bring about rapid, flexible change. Success requires open communication through loosely coupled, peer collaboration networks that involve innovation leaders, other experts (eg researchers) and resources that the innovators turn to for advice and support. Tapscott and Williams cite examples where these sorts of networks have radically changed product design and development in companies such as BMW and Boeing. Some universities have introduced distributive leadership networks, where the sort of expertise required for change (eg contributory and practice based expertise) is distributed throughout the organisation. These networks could focus on open, collaborative development of ideas where practitioners post questions on Ideagoras, seeking information on ideas, trends, framework or methods. Researchers could post their latest ideas, seeking out contexts and application areas for further research where they could work in partnership with practitioners. It will be difficult to integrate the different epistemic approaches of practitioners and bridge the gaps in understanding the terms and language of each group.

2. Use research-development partnerships to shake up product roadmaps. In the corporate sector there is a trend towards outsourcing research. The reason is simple – if the research is too closely tied to the existing product, real innovation is unlikely to happen. We can see this in education where many ‘action research’ initiatives are embedded within existing forms of teaching, reducing the possibility of rethinking approaches. There is an inherent dilemma: if incremental change is likely to be most successful , tying it closely to existing approaches may inhibit innovation. At the same time innovation that is removed from existing practices (in the absence of a disruptive force, such as loss of a ‘home’ student market necessitating distance learning approaches) is unlikely to be adopted. It seems that the most likely way to ‘shake up product roadmaps’ is to have sufficient separation between research and development to allow new ideas to emerge, while, at the same time, fostering understanding across the research-development interface. This would inevitably create a ‘tension’ which could incubate innovation. Ideagoras could potentially provide an environment that provides sufficient separation while, at the same time, allows individuals to network. Of course a range of different technologies and environments could achieve this. The key idea here is to use the environment to challenge the thinking of practitioner and researcher group on their ‘product’ roadmaps.

3. Aim for win–win collaboration . For a ‘win-win’ both sides have to understand each others perspectives, values and motivators. This level of understanding can be achieved by working together on a common goal (eg through action research that aims to solve a learning problem by identifying the issues causing the problem, then finding, implementing and testing solutions). Tapscott and Williams cite a number of examples where ‘knowledge tasks’ have been used to bring about learning across enterprise boundaries (see also ‘The Only Sustainable Edge’ by John Hagel and John Seely Brown). Research-development teams working together on learning innovation often find the initial stages of collaboration to be difficult. In the beginning the two groups may not understand each other’s values and goals. If the ideagora environment could be used as mechanism to bridge cultures, focussing on a win-win for all groups is more likely to bring about success.

4. Deepen and broaden collaboration across enterprise boundaries One way of bringing about understanding could be to circulate ideas through ‘reverse innovation transfer’, where an idea from practice is moved ‘upstream’ to research. A number of organisations have used ‘reverse innovation transfer’ to deepen collaboration. This may be best achieved by focussing on ‘high value’ activities for collaboration (ie activities values by researchers and developers). In an open, networked ideagora environment ideas could be scored, indicating their value and enabling selection of ideas that should be researched and developed. This already happens in networking environments such as Linkedin (Koos Winnips just told me he recently posted a question on technology enhanced to Linkedin and had 12 answers within 24 hours from a variety of people from the education and corporate sectors).

5. Learn from ‘proxy’ customers early and often Change can be sparked in industry by disruptive factors such as reducing number of customers, demand for different sorts of products or the need for rapid change. These factors are becoming increasingly influential in education, where ‘products’ can be viewed as graduates who have undergone personal transformation through learning. Customers can be viewed as employers (corporations, public sector organisations, SMEs) or even students themselves. Ideagora environments could potentially be used to link with proxy customers so that they might build ideas that are more likely to be adopted.

Ideagoras are not radical technologies. However, thinking through the ways they could be used and the processes they could support could help find a solution to integrating epistemic approaches of practitioners and researchers to support innovation in learning. It would be interesting to investigate if and how environments such as ideagoras could be used to surface ‘disruptive’ factors required to ring about real change in education.

Collins and Evans (2007) Periodic Table of Expertise
Markauskaite and Reimann, ICT-Enhanced Teacher Innovation, EdMedia 2008
Tapscott and Williams (2006) Wikinomics
Tapscott and Williams (2007), Ideagora, a Marketplace for Minds, Business Week
Twigg (2000) Educause