Tag Archives: Tom Inns

Social learning and radical innovation

When people talk about social learning, there’s often a tendency to act as if providing the technology to bring people together (microblogging, forums, wikis, etc) will necessarily result in knowledge sharing and that knowledge sharing will necessarily result in new, better approaches. But as we all know, the human element of that equation and the complex circumstances of most problems can make things quite a bit more messy.

The ecology of radical innovation

Blackwell, et al. in  Radical innovation: Crossing Knowledge Boundaries with Interdisciplinary Teams (2009)  look at the social process of knowledge sharing, with a specific eye to what spurs innovation. As the article points out, problem-solving doesn’t necessarily result in new knowledge. However, when new knowledge is generated it can be:

  • Incremental
  • Directed (e.g., typically commercial innovation)
  • Radical (crossing interdisciplinary boundaries)
  • Disruptive (reshaping boundaries)

Radical innovation requires crossing organizational boundaries and creating new structures and processes. It requires not just bringing together different perspectives  to solve problems, but bringing these new perspectives to bear on framing the problems themselves. In other words, you don’t just need new answers, you need new questions as well.

Blackwell, et al. state that when you consider knowledge sharing…

We therefore consider not only the creation, transfer, application and exploitation of knowledge as a linear process … but the whole ecology by which people, understanding and skills move between different professional contexts.

The social capital of communities of practice

Since innovation requires bridging established communities of practice to create new ones, interdisciplinary innovation requires understanding that:

  • People who know, like, and trust each other are more likely to help each other , i.e., a community of practice has a certain amount of “social capital”
  • Those who reach across communities of practice (“brokers”) may expend some of this social capital
  • The larger interdisciplinary community that’s created should try to restore this capital

Building collaborative teams

A key facet to restoring this capital is flexibility. Team members must be willing to stray from their preferred skills and approaches and consider the skills and approaches of others. These skills/approaches need to be valued and experimented with.

Within an interdisciplinary team, the qualities of a successful innovator include:

  • Humility
  • Passion
  • Open-mindedness
  • Playfulness
  • Curiosity

When interdisciplinary team dynamics are managed correctly, the team has the skill to take advantage of the unexpected. Blackwell, et al. describe the ideal leader of such a team as a “pole star” leader, one who recognizes opportunities, engages team members, and harnesses their excitement. This kind of leader tolerates risk and the idea that problems can be fuzzy and can morph the more you learn about them.

It’s a matter of trust

Management has to believe in the value of bringing the team together to solve the problem and the problem solution itself has to have value. Team members have to trust the process they’re engaged in and they have to trust that the skills of fellow team members have value, even when they’re quite different from their own.

It’s not all social all the time

Blackwell, et al. observe that resources and time must be set aside for personal reflection. Social learning isn’t all about constant social engagement. Personal reflection benefits both the individual and the organization since it can be a source of new knowledge.

The status quo is not innovation friendly

Blackwell, et al. note that education, in its current state, does not foster divergent thinking  or the development of social skills required to help members of different disciplines to work together. To the extent that social learning is part of a curriculum or lesson plan, it’s the ability to work productively within a single discipline that’s nurtured. (That’s not to say this is a bad thing, just that it can be a limited and limiting approach.)

Similarly, a natural outcome of fostering communities of practice in the workplace is the creation of silos. Silos aren’t entirely bad; they can contain and organize knowledge. But they can also foster a kind of “cognitive rigidity” that makes it difficult to establish the trust required for interdisciplinary teams to function well.  Additionally, when hierarchies and roles are strictly defined, you’re less likely to have innovation.

The tools of innovation and the role of the learning developer

As Blackwell, et al, note: “Interdisciplinary innovation is a social activity that requires creative spaces and network resources.” So it seems that we’re back to the technology that can be used to enhance  team dynamics. Here, social media can be a powerful force in fostering these dynamics, providing relatively less competitive open spaces where conversations and divergent thinking can take place. That’s not to say that power-seeking dynamics won’t exist, but here, the learning developer has an important role as a facilitator who can keep these social spaces open and who can work with team members and team leaders to build the trust and respect necessary for radical innovation.

Blackwell’s article, though lengthy, is well worth the read. There’s a useful appendix offering advice for strategic management, policy, and organizational change.


Blackwell, A.F., Wilson, L., Street, A., Boulton, C., Knell, J. (2009).
Radical innovation: Crossing Knowledge Boundaries with Interdisciplinary Teams, University of Cambridge, NESTA report, Retrieved from www.cl.cam.ac.uk/techreports/UCAM-CL-TR-760.pdf