Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Deviance or Innovation: the language of devox

Have you ever stopped to wonder just where innovators get their ideas? Often those of us operating within the norms and conventions of a discipline, fail to see the possibilities that others who are outside can clearly visualise.
Back when I was a teenager, I met a guy who was a world-class sailor, sailmaker and sailing dinghy designer. He had no formal training past year 10, but believed that he could design a 12-metre yacht (America's Cup) that was significantly faster than those built at that time. Bob was no marine architect and couldn't see why his ideas wouldn't work. The yacht designers of the day were unconvinced because they knew their disciplines of hydrodynamics and the aerodynamics intimately and realised the futility of Bob's aspirations.
Despite the respected wisdom of the time, Bob found an entrepreneur who was prepared to take a chance with his ideas and provided him with the opportunity to build and tank-test the scale models he had constructed.
One of his designs went on to break the longest winning streak in history in 1983 when Australia II beat the US's yacht Liberty skippered by possibly the best skipper 12 metre racing has ever seen, Dennis Connor. Most people know Bob by the name he chose to call himself after he sold his share of a sailmaking business, Ben Lexcen.
Ben was an unusual man and could never be accused of being mainstream--he was off to the side and a brilliant innovator who saw the possibility for improvement in everything he observed.

Recently a colleague of mine sent me an article written Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker that promoted a view suggesting a close link between deviants and innovation. They suggest that those who take a few steps off to the side of social convention operate on the fringe and this is where all innovation comes from (see fig 1).

figure 1 Deviant Innovation Model
(adapted from Mathews, R. & Wacker, W., 2004)

They also assert that the time taken for ideas to travel from the fringe to social convention is shrinking, with businesses needing to become better at supporting their deviants and more attuned at harvesting their ideas ready for integration into the next big thing.

This article has implications in terms of e-learning. New technologies are emerging every day and approaches to learning that were not previously possible, are now a reality. A learning organisation's ability to harvest and adopt ideas from the fringe may well be the key to its success, or even its survival.
I clearly remember a colleague of mine back in 1995-96 talking about the need to design learning environments that were flexible, organic and able to utilise free open source programming applications.
Back then we all knew that this approach would never work and that if these kinds of applications were free then they would be inferior to those developed by large corporations with high R&D budgets--this was a truth within the social convention.
Now we are finding out to our expense and horror that enterprise approaches to programming applications are fraught with risks and dangers. To give a couple of examples, if an enterprise Learning Management Systems (LMS) has just one part of its infrastructure or programming fail, the whole learning environment can cease to work.
Another problem we face is the inflexibility of mainstream enterprise LMSs. Most of these have been designed using a publication metaphor and are little more than page turners with a few tools thrown in. Their design makes them very difficult to customise for the new pedagogical approaches coming in from the fringe.
On the other hand, learning environments that use an amalgam of open-source software can be constantly updated and designed with few problems and expense. They also continue to work when one part experiences a problem.
These ideas have now moved away from the fringe and are now finding a wider audience with researchers like Stephen Downes who is a strong advocate for the open source approach.

After reading the deviant framework article I can now see similarities between the fringe dwellers and my colleague and Bob. In educational institutions that consider themselves to be learning organisations, the recommendations contained within the article are very relevant and should be given a high level of attention if the institution wishes to stay current and successful. Market advantage is just as relevant in a global educational market as it is in business.