On 14th October we held the third and final Futures Cafe in our year long season of events exploring the future of IT. Each cafe has focused on the role of IT in university strategic objectives, this one on promoting Innovation & Enterprise. We had four speakers and a good audience of mainly IT Services staff. These are my own personal notes from a thought provoking event.
John Manley, member of University Council and recently retired as director of HP Labs set the scene and chaired the event. John asked us to consider: What is the role of IT Services? How does IT enable innovation? And how does IT innovate itself?
Harvard Business Review published a paper “How Bell Labs Creates star Performers” (Robert Kelly & Janet Kaplan, HBR July-August 1993) which is a particular favourite of John’s. Bell labs is an IT/engineering-centric organisation – very relevant to us. The star performers weren’t brighter than the rest. The paper is available via the university library’s ejournals if you want to read it, but it comes down to two points. The people rated as star performers, by their peers and managers, had the willingness & ability to take the initiative, and were good at networking. They got on with stuff off their own bat, and they built their networks of contacts well, such that when they needed help colleagues responded quickly.
These aren’t innate skills – they can be learnt. We can all get better at them. So two questions we might ask: what can IT Services do to improve networking, and to encourage people to take initiative?
Liz is a geographer by background but now a lecturer in civil engineering. She works on better drainage & landslide prevention in the developing world, using computer models. Liz is at early stage in her career and growing her research group.
Liz made the point that if you have an intellectual advantage, you need to get innovations out there straight away, before another research group overtakes you. There are many problems in academics maintaining code for such models, eg loss of expertise due to staff turnover. Sowhat can IT Services do to help researchers get things done quicker?
Liz described a Random Hacks Of Kindness Hackathon she took part in – Liz pitched her requirement for visualisation software, 20 hours of intense teamwork from 5 people produced something 80% complete and usable. The team who took up her pitch won the event!
Liz mooted idea of something similar internally. Academics pitch their software development requirement at a public forum, IT experts sign up to develop it. Or even the Google 20% time idea – a big ask, but something in it?
Phil covered the teaching and learning perspective. He’s now a teacher, not a researcher.
Phil gave us various anecdotes, often evidence based. He started by mentioning that two of his biggest research grants in the past had been started by chance tea room conversations: reading the tea leaves. Serendipity, interdisciplinarity are important. In teaching Phil gave us evidence from a study that showed if you cut back on the content of a lecture people will remember more. Phil used good teaching practice in his talk, getting us to actually do something and think about a problem, rather than just listening. Phil mentioned the importance of language – how often he realises that before he can have an engaging conversation, you have to establish that what each party means by a word is the same thing. Misunderstandings are easy and frequent – underlined by an anecdote about a A grade biology student, who thought blood vessels were like little ships – vessels…
Requirements for innovation start with a practical need, an itch to scratch. Two of Phil’s we might help with:
How do we annotate on digital documents in layers that we can show and hide?
How do we capture where the laser pointer on screen is pointing, when we capture and record the lecture, so we know what the lecturer was drawing attention to? There’s a great TED talk showing innovative use of cheap Kinect technology to do this.
Finally a quote:
Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it – Henry Ford
Paul was our external speaker, from EDINA, a JISC funded project. Paul provoked us with a quote from another, unattributed institution: “I’d outsource my granny if I could!” But Paul wanted to ask us: what effect does outsourcing your granny have on your ability to innovate?
One of Paul’s observations was that the closer a developer is to the person using the service, the easier it is to have steady, incremental improvements. This can be a challenge in the new environment of Software as a Service. But APIs are becoming more and more important in this environment. Paul is a fan of APIs. He makes the point that APIs are interfaces for developers.
In a SaaS environment there are various models as to where the technical expertise and developers sit which Paul talked through. But his favourite has the concept of the Strategic Technical Developer in prime position within the organisation using the service. These are experienced people who have been around for a while, have excellent understanding of the local organisation and a good network. Just because you outsource, doesn’t mean you can do without developers!
Paul would like us to evaluate our capacity for local, technical innovation, bring engineers into an organisation at all levels, and never forget the talent and source of innovation in our student cohort.
Nick Sturge of RED is responsible for SETSquared, the University’s high tech incubator centre. He’s recently established The Engine Shed incubator space at Temple Meads. The job of these spaces is to help nurture and grow small innovative enterprises.
Setsquared is all about the people. In evaluating new businesses, Nick concentrates on the people, not the idea. He asks the founders three questions: how did you get to where you are? What have you got? Where do you want to go?
You have to be realistic when pursuing opportunities. About 40% of companies hosted by Setsquared are helped to shut down after 12 months. an interesting idea – how many university initiatives are deliberately shut down, and how many carry on indefinitely when perhaps they shouldn’t?
Speed is essential in innovation. Too much process getting in the way can be a problem. Instead build as you go, bringing your customers with you in the design. Get to the minimum viable product, 75% done, and go to market.
Innovation is both thinking up something new and getting it done. The idea on its own is no good. Nick dreamed up an idea for a portable MP3 player a long time ago in an idle moment in a lab, but it was Apple who actually built the iPod. Successful enterpreneurs cross the boundaries from research, to development, to market. This involves taking risks.
Nick pondered what are the stumbling blocks to innovation within a large organisation like the University of Bristol? One of them is reputational risk – both to the individual and to the organisation. Innovation involves risk taking, and being able to fail without taking too much of a hit. We need to be able to accept failure gracefully. Nick also pondered what role does gut instinct play? And how do you decide who to trust – so and sos gut instincts are good, but not someone elses. Part of it is building up reputational capital in advance.
We finished with a good discussion, with contributions from everyone in the room. John asked us each for something that provoked, surprised us, sparked our interest, or something we disagreed with. Many good ideas for future actions were aired, and captured during the debate – many worth a whole blog post in themselves…