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Here Comes Everybody – bits and pieces 1

April 3rd, 2008 · No Comments · Teaching & learning

I have nearly finished Clay Shirky’s new book ‘Here Comes Every Body‘ that is being much commented on in the blogosphere at the moment. For me at least it helps make quite a lot of sense of the current explosion of social networking, web 2.0 developments and the renewed interest in open source software. It has given me a great deal to think about and it will take some time to work through the significance of many of the issues explored, particularly in the context of HE institutions in the UK. I’ll just mention for now two of the things that struck me immediately of interest, starting with a quote from page 249 on the risk averse behaviour of large organisations

In business, the investment cost of producing anything risks creating a systematic bias in the direction of acceptance of the substandard. You have experienced this effect if you have ever sat through a movie you didn’t particularly like in order to ‘get your money’s worth”. The money has already gone, and whether you continue to watch Rocky XVII or not won’t change the fact. […] Curiously in that moment many people choose to keep watching the movie they have already decided they don’t like, partly as a way to avoid admitting they’ve wasted their money. So it is in many organisations. The systematic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.

This applies to the protection of large scale investments and the prohibitive costs of doing something else once the system is in place and embedded. Examples would include investment in VLEs where a great deal of time and other resources have been invested in staff development, fixes and fiddles to make it do what you want it to do (sadly this often means changing your methods and procedures to fit the technology – A about F as far as I’m concerned), and for many a large personal emotional investment in the system.

Another thing that I found particularly interesting was Shirky’s report on some research on originality and ‘good’ ideas within organisations. The methodology, at least as reported, seemed reasonably OK. The most consistent source of innovative and useful ideas are individuals and groups that operate across and therefore partially outside of specifically functional groups. In general terms they can see the broader context but at the same time understand the purposes and needs of the narrower functional groups as well as the strategic objectives and needs of the wider organisation. These individuals have a wider spread of links and more connections between groups. Within the more compact and focussed functional groups the exchange of ideas has something of the character of being in an echo chamber of accepted ideas, customary and implicit attitudes and procedures and a natural tendency to reinforce the comfort zone and the status quo. This is a bit of a gloss, influenced by what i see going on around me, but I think is in the spirit of the report.

This seems to me an argument for developing networks and making it possible for staff to operate or at least think outside their particular silos. I’m sure the social network we now have at my University, based on Elgg,  is making a valuable contribution to this end already. It is also an argument for looking at how units already working across the whole University can contribute to innovation, like the staff development and support units, educational technologists, Library staff and teams and no doubt others. It also is an argument for secondments and internal sabbaticals.


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