Ceci n’est pas un pipe

A story in the New York Times about Nokia’s work on human behaviour illustrates beautifully how things we create often end up being used for very different purposes.

Someone working in Kampala, for instance, who wishes to send the equivalent of $5 back to his mother in a village will buy a $5 prepaid airtime card, but rather than entering the code into his own phone, he will call the village phone operator (“phone ladies” often run their businesses from small kiosks) and read the code to her. She then uses the airtime for her phone and completes the transaction by giving the man’s mother the money, minus a small commission. “It’s a rather ingenious practice,” Chipchase says, “an example of grass-roots innovation, in which people create new uses for technology based on need.”

Rather than ignoring this innovation, Nokia employs people (like Jan Chipchase, quoted in the snippet above) who explore how their phones are used in the wider world. And Nokia acts on what they find.

Influenced by Chipchase’s study on the practice of sharing cellphones inside of families or neighborhoods, Nokia has started producing phones with multiple address books for as many as seven users per phone. To enhance the phone’s usefulness to illiterate customers, the company has designed software that cues users with icons in addition to words.

For me, this is an example of how our knowledge needs to step beyond the temporary boundaries that we have set for it. Nokia is a really interesting company. It started as a paper company, but diversified very early — into electricity generation. The other two companies that merged into the Nokia Corporation in 1968 operated in the rubber industry and in cable and electronics. With such a hybrid background, it is not especially surprising that Nokia moved so well into telecommunications.

This link between diversity of influences and innovation has been made in the context of law firms as well: Law Firm Innovation out of Purposeful Imagination. A quote:

Opportunities are also created by events. But those at the right place at the right time usually didn’t get there just by accident. As the French scientist Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” Purposeful imagination should include thinking about things that could happen and then imagining how they could happen differently. It is about doing so with an eye toward the opportunities those events would present for the firm.

In case one might think that this is something one can pick up from a book, Dave Snowden puts us right (“..sapping the vigor of the mind”):

There is a huge difference between a chef and a user of recipe books. The recipe book user (for which read the manufacturing model of consultancy) uses best practice to assemble the same ingredients in the same context to produce the same meal, time and time again. If they come into your kitchen, it will have to be re-engineered to confirm with the requirements of the recipe before they start to work (and you will pay in many ways for that). The Chef in contrast can work with whatever ingredients and utensils you happen to have to hand and create a great meal.

It is all about preparedness, imagination, ideas, innovation and expertise.

If books were valued according to their price per page, A Technique for Producing Ideas would be one of the most valuable that I own. In fact, its real value is entirely consistent with its cost of 10 pence per page. The book outlines a simple technique to generate ideas. Although it dates from the 1940s and is directed at people working in advertising, it contains insights that we can all still benefit from. (The author, James Webb Young, is ranked above Rupert Murdoch in a list of the top 100 players in advertising history.)

It feels a bit strange to summarise a book that is already very concise, but I’ll give it a go, using quotations from the text.

The starting point is one that should be familiar to people working in knowledge management:

In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles, and second, Method. This is true of the art of producing ideas.

Particular bits of knowledge are nothing, because they are made up of what Dr. Robert Hutchins once called rapidly aging facts. Principles and method are everything.

So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.

So what are the principles and method?

There are two principles:

  • An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements
  • The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships

The way these principles work can be seen by looking at the method, which has five stages (as summarised by Anecdote):

  1. Gather raw material
    You need to collect specific and the general information about the issue you are working on. It’s important to be a maven and get interested in the peripheral areas and keep saying to yourself, “this might be useful.”
  2. Digest the material
    “This part of the process is harder to describe in concrete terms because it goes on entirely inside your head.” Play with the material you’ve collected. Look at it from different angles and perspectives. Don’t be too literal, use metaphors and most importantly jot down partial ideas as they come to you, regardless of how crazy they seem. Keep going until you get to the hopeless stage and everything seems like a jumble.
  3. Put the issue out of your mind completely—an incubation period
    Forget about the problem and just like Sherlock Holmes, abruptly drop the case mid-way through and got to a concert. Do anything that keeps you mind off the issue at hand and engages your emotions.
  4. An idea will appear
    At some point the “ah ha!” moment happens. Don’t let it slide past. Write down the idea immediately.
  5. Expose the idea to reality
    The idea is likely to need work. So now is the time to build it up, think about the practicalities, and work out how it might really work in practice. Test the idea with colleagues and clients and be ready to adapt.

The more widely one reads and digests, the better the source material for ideas (in any walk of life). This is an area where knowledge management can help. When talking about the first and second stages of idea generation James Webb Young refers to his habit of keeping a scrapbook of things that occur to him, and a set of index cards to help categorise the things he sees and likes, so that they can readily be brought back to mind when necessary. These are tools for personal knowledge management.

Nowadays, however, we can do better than this. Del.icio.us is a kind of digital scrapbook, consisting of things that people see on the web that might be of interest at some point. Rather than index cards, users can use tags to classify things in a way that makes sense to them. Because the ’scrapbook’ is online, anyone else can see it too. (Although it is possible to mark it as private.) You can see my things at http://del.icio.us/innominate_lex.

The final stage in the ideas process is probably the hardest one. This is where Nokia’s experience shows. They take the insights from their research and create prototypes and examples of potential designs. Those are then tested out with potential users, generating new ideas and insights. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate how development is never static. Our knowledge should also be dynamic, and therefore any systems we design and use to improve that knowledge must reflect that dynamism.

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9 Responses to “Ceci n’est pas un pipe”

  1. 1 Mary Abraham 17 April 2008 at 15:09

    Bravo, Mark! This is a wonderful post that goes far beyond knowledge management. It really is critical advice for a productive life.

    Thank you.

  2. 2 Eva Schiffer 7 May 2008 at 20:45

    Inspiring. I especially like the way it points to the fact that you get to new ideas by taking things out of one context and putting them into a completely different one and being prepared to cross the unusual to breed something new. Just the food-for-thought I was browsing for…


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