Saturday, July 26, 2008

Subject: Experts Matter

Note: This is the 5th article in the “Why Johnny Can’t Innovate” series.

As tends to happen at my local bookstore (where I write most of my articles), a new book found its way into my ‘to read’ pile. Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” caught my eye, if at first for no other reason as to its wise-ass potential. I soon realized that the book’s cover belied a more serious message within its pages.

The premise of Bauerlein’s thesis is that a growing number of young people in the United States are losing the ability to read and comprehend literature, engage in scientific and political debate, and are generally becoming knowledge deficient. The cause is an over-abundance of social technologies which distract young minds from intellectual pursuits and cater to the banality and peer adulation needs of “anyone under 30”.

While I can’t say that I entirely disagree with him, I do have a different perspective on the changing face of human-enabled knowledge management.

I get to work with people who have made careers out of knowing and innovating slices of key industries, science and technologies better than most if not all of their peers. I get to see the best of the best do what they do, and they all do it as well or better than anyone else in their fields. They are, what we call in innovation practice, subject matter experts (SMEs).

SMEs drive cutting-edge advances in all fields such including physics, chemistry, biology, materials, engineering, and of course - business. Frequently I get to know these experts on a personal level, and see the paths they’ve taken to get where they are in their careers. While their industries may differ, their stories are similar. SMEs have journeyed along highly challenging and collaborative academic or entrepreneurial paths, becoming recognized by their peers, and ultimately have sought to bring their talents to the corporate world.

Soon after securing a position in a prestigious firm or a bold startup, a shroud of isolation quickly surrounds many experts as the needs of competitive secrecy and corporate culture arrest open exchange and communication. The subject matter expert becomes an individual contributor, and soon, becomes focused on his or her individual contributions within a department or a project. Does this impact their abilities to drive innovations in their fields of expertise? No. But it often impairs their innate skills of documenting their expertise, or becoming an expert in anything else, in favor of their companies’ operational efficiencies.

Experts are not simply critical innovation resources for the knowledge they’ve passionately collected, developed and apply. Experts are critical drivers of innovation because of how and why they became experts in the first place. They were once passionate about their interests and developed effective documentation, investigation and collaboration skills to rise to the top of their fields. SMEs are incredibly good at writing narratives about their discoveries, research, and opinions. Organizations with an innovation mandate should not overlook these skills, and the SMEs who possess them.

Of the many reasons innovation initiatives fail, lack of available or accessible subject matter expertise is a common factor. In my experience, too often it is discovered that the expert knowledge that could have meant success for the initiative was present all along, but the body-corporate never realized that it had the critical resources sitting within their own walls.

Fostering a collaborative environment across experts in multiple departments, business units and operating companies does not mean risking competitive controls or changing the corporate culture to a completely academic environment. To unleash the potential of SMEs in an innovation culture, a proactive knowledge management strategy that is both central to the organization and distributed throughout all of its operations is critical.

Promoting strong narrative forms of collaborative communication can raise the collective knowledge of an organization, and stem the costly onset of institutional memory loss. This aspect of communication is a critical element of many contemporary social networking applications.

Unlike the exchanges among the younger population which give Bauerlein concern about a growing knowledge deficiency, enabling SMEs to tell and leverage their stories across organizations and industries leads to knowledge-enabled innovation.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

It's Not Easy Meaning Green

I'm preparing for an online seminar on Green Innovation practices that I'll be giving next month. In my research and presentation development, I've been doing a lot of reading, and talking to a lot of my clients. Some of the big unknowns I'm finding in the nascent green industrial complex are common metrics used to define what being 'green' actually means. There are, of course, frequently discussed issues of carbon emissions and toxification of shared natural resources, but how does this translate to measurable actions that individuals and business can take in their day-to-day operations and long-term strategic plans?

Of the growing number of green business and green innovation books on the market, many fall short on the subject of metrics, instead choosing to focus on matters of policy and society. When I ask my clients, "What does 'Green' Innovation mean to you? How do you measure the success of your 'Green' initiatives?", I get the same two responses no matter what the industry, or role of the person I'm asking. They laugh somewhat nervously for thirty seconds, then, quietly, with a twitchy yet steely-eyed glare tell me,

"It depends on who you ask. What do you think?".

I'm rapidly coming to the realization that being sufficiently green is this century's equivalent of the Y2K problem, but without a definitive goal or end date. During the last 7 years of the second millenium, the realization that many of our computers would have serious difficulties measuring time after the year 19100 created sufficient cause to study the problem, understand it, and take measured actions prior to the clearly defined event.

We have far less clarity in the current green realization. For example, while there is data to suggest that global warming is occuring, the understanding of contributions from man-made and natural mechanisms are at best, controversial. Unlike the rigid cutoff Y2K date that was impossible to ignore, one generation may not know that a tipping point was irrevocably crossed until the next generation looks back at empirical data. There is a fundamental conflict between short-term and long-term goals, and the generations who control what actions are taken.

So how can any green action speak to short or long-term success when we can't agree on what to work towards?

In principle, being mindful and considerate of other people and natural resources is never a bad idea. While the metrics of day to day living may not seem directly connected to such consideration, several green metrics I've repeatedly come across are close. From what I've observed at a number of clients and through my own reading, the following is a short list of metrics that align with green goals:

  • energy efficiency
  • kilowatt hours
  • water conservation
  • water quality / chemistry
  • air quality / chemistry
  • liquid and solid waste generation
  • recycled material usage
  • chemical volatility / organic compound content
  • direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions (carbon)

The first three metrics in the list are often considered the starting point for any green strategy. Energy and water usage can be locally controlled and easily measured and budgeted through direct observation (usually in the form of utility bills). Similarly, localized application of technologies and disciplines can have directly measurable usage impacts. Energy and water saving applications which fail can easily be replaced. Through research, trial and error, anyone can become more green in these two aspects.

Environmental quality is a bit trickier to manage. Local efforts to improve resource quality may come at the expense of an increased energy expenditure or degradation of other green metrics somewhere outside of the controllable supply chain. The same can be said for localized recycling, material substitutions and controlling greenhouse gas emissions. While local efforts to improve any of these metrics can make for a good green story, the consequential (and often negative) impacts are seldom easy to assess without considering distant energy and resource dependencies.

There is one 'green' not in my list that will factor into any and all actions taken by the most isolated of individuals to the largest conglomerates - cash flow. Changes take resources, time, and an economy that can sustain changes of necessity and opportunity. Executive actions may drive green headlines, but low-cost greening will drive the balance sheet.

When considering any green initiative, take into consideration how the metrics you plan to use in measuring your green success align in both local and distant impacts.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Mighty Wind

T. Boone Pickens is a Texas oilman by his own definition. He's also one of the most accurate and insightful energy analysts I've seen in the last decade, and I have a lot of respect for his opinions about the energy markets.

Yesterday I happened to catch him early in the morning on CNBC. He was launching a self-funded campaign to any and all interested parties (political, commercial, academic) to propose a plan to shift the United States' disasterous dependence on external energy sources to those that are domestically produced and freely available, including an enormous abundance of wind.

Here are the plan's highlights in his own words:

How did we get here? There are plenty of financial and economic models, theories, and blogs which can argue the answers to this question. I would suggest that supply and demand ultimately play the biggest roles, and in particular, it is the demand side which is least understood by most people. It isn't just the rise in demand by energy consumers in developing nations such as India and China. Demand has skyrocketed through the creation of derivative financial vehicles such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and options markets that enable large pools of money such as retirement funds (like the ones you likely have at work) to bid up the price of oil without even realizing it.

In other words, if you walk to work, take the stairs, and let your 401K be managed by companies that deal in hedge funds, you're probably jeopardizing the planet. Think about it.

Pickens' plan has some fascinating implications for the future. If realized, it could mean the revitalization of the American midwest. Skilled labor will be needed to build, maintain and replace turbines. Support businesses and communities will develop around windfarms in an almost symbiotic relationship between people and the machines that sustain them (a theme not foreign to many science fiction stories of the last century, and likely an accurate prediction of the near future).

Unlike oil fields that have a definitive lifecycle of about 30 years, wind farms lend themselves to a continual lifecycle and sustainable innovation. The technical and logistical problems ahead (beyond the establishment of multiple wind farms) represent an opportunity for science and engineering advancements on a scale we haven't seen since the Apollo program. The potential for commercially developed (and green) innovations in turbine design, power transmission, and battery technologies (to name just a few) are incredible. (BTW, not too far outside the proposed wind belt is a solar belt which is equally exciting for its innovation potential.)

This is a plan worth considering.

There are some humorous ironies that I can't help noting. In Picken's own words yesterday, "we all have to get on the same team". When we consider who might be on that team, we might consider Larry Hagman, best known for his role on the tv series Dallas as oil-baron J.R. Ewing, who has converted his entire California estate to solar and alternative power. We might also consider actor and environmental activist Ed Begley, Jr., who has made similar conversions to his home. One of Mr. Begley's roles was a bit part in the film "A Mighty Wind", which was a mockumentary about the folk music movement of the 1960's. The title song from the film refers to a mighty wind as "blowin' peace and freedom..blowin' equality".

How life imitates art sometimes.