Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Still making notes on coasters?

There’s many who see the role of social media as a distraction and a nuisance at times, while there are those who believe it will spur innovation. Should we be moving more aggressively to support innovation?

Perhaps the highlight of the year for me was the time spent on the Nurburgring circuit, late in September. This circuit used to be the venue for the German Grand Prix and having the opportunity to complete a number of uneventful, and relatively slow, laps driving on Germany’s Grüne Hölle, the world-famous Nordschleife, or North Loop, of the Nürburgring, fulfilled a childhood dream when I imagined I was running wheel to wheel with historic figures from a bygone era as we raced around this highly challenging and extremely dangerous track.

For those who may have read the post “Respect the ‘Ring” I made to my social blog, buckle-up-travel.blogspot.com, the track was wet on arrival. There had been heavy rain overnight that had continued into the morning hours and as we drove to the track, we passed a number of flat-bed tow trucks leaving the track with wrecked cars on board. But with the coming of winter the Eifel forest, where the circuit is located, is often blanketed in snow and the picture above was sent to me by Thomas, one of the instructors from RSRacing who had tutored me in September.

Sitting at coffee shop the other day and paging through my Blackberry, I saw that it was snowing in Nurburg and I knew Thomas had read previous posts to my social blog and had connected with me on LinkedIn (LI) so he was likely to respond to my request for a photo but all the same, collaborating with Thomas to get the photos I wanted and in the timeframe that I needed, was pretty impressive. The picture above is of “hatzenbach” an early sequence of turns within sight of the South Loop and the grandstands that are a part of what today is the venue for the modern-era Formula One races.

Social media channels, and the ease the information can be shared globally, lets us maintain dialogues with friends and acquaintances with nary a concern about where they are or what they may be doing. Whenever we have questions, or need information, there are always those willing to step in to help us.

A good friend of mine, and a colleague from my days at Insession, began an email to me recently with the somewhat traditional “how are you,” only to correct himself and adding, “of course I know how you are, as does everyone else!” A reference to how regularly I update my LI profile as well as post to my Facebook (FB) wall and tweet! However, it’s not just sites like LI and FB that have the corner on collaboration!

From the first time I was exposed to the virtual community Second Life (SL) and created an avatar, I thought that global participation within a virtual community would be a boon to business. I had a lot of fun flying from island to island, checking out the construction that was under way. Landing on an island where Pontiac had a sales presence I even took advantage of the opportunity to test drive a Solstice only to drive it into a lake.

I dropped in on islands that IBM had bought where they were building digital representations of their labs, holding virtual meetings and, for a short time, there wasn’t a major IBM marketing event where you would escape an update on how IBM was benefiting from its exploitation of SL. While IBM is less vocal about its SL pursuits, it has licensed the technology and is hosting it behind IBM’s firewall.

Perhaps not immediately associated with traditional social media channels, it’s possibly more indicative of what’s to come than many of the more popular sites we readily access today. SL combines visual cues with exchanges we may otherwise overlook – and having cues that reinforce information only accelerates further collaboration.

But will virtual communities eventually overlap, perhaps even merge, with more traditional social media channels – will we stop being “followers” and be more active in our exchanges with others? Will communities such as SL lead to the development of even more communities?

I’m not a “gamer”, and so much of what is now available on SL is of little interest to me nor is it to many within the IT community I talk to. But a future where every social media channel, “traditional” or otherwise, takes us to areas of interest more quickly will be something that only further heightens our interest in collaborating that in turn nurtures the prospect for innovation!

Watching an old episode of CSI, a popular television program, the lead investigator visits a Buddhist temple where threats had been made and where it had been reported one of the monks had promised retribution. Picking up an old sword, the investigator is advised that it’s just an old sword brought over from Thailand and wouldn’t be of interest to which the investigator responded “the past is just the past but it may have the fingerprints of the future!”

So it is with the many forms of social media that we now so readily embrace – whether we treat them seriously or as a nuisance - as a networking environment that easily and readily supports collaboration, they may be very much an indication of what the future will look like! “The growing importance of networking, of mixing it with colleagues and generating ideas – using social media not unlike we used to use beer coasters and dinner napkins,” shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us!

Recently a reader emailed me a link to a review by Fiona Graham, technology of business reporter for the BBC news, of the book “Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation” by Steven Johnson. The quote above come from the author’s introduction, and what followed not only shouldn’t surprise any of us but help us realize where the future is headed.

The review adds a comment from Johnson that really adds substance to my own observations of late, suggesting “(good ideas) come from crowds, they come from networks. You know we have this clichéd idea of the lone genius having the ‘eureka’ moment. But in fact … it turns out that so often there is this quiet collaborative process that goes on, either in people building on other peoples' ideas, but also in borrowing ideas, or tools or approaches to problems.”

Wrapping up the review, a final quote concludes with “the ultimate idea comes from this remixing of various different components. There still are smart people and there still are people that have moments where they see the world differently in a flash … but for the most part it's a slower and more networked process than we give them credit for."

Spending time in Nurburg and unsure when I would next visit the town, I collected beer coasters as souvenirs. At the time, I thought that they would serve as a reminder of the great time I had, but perhaps I had missed the point. Long after their presence is gone and any association with my outing on the track is lost, there will still be blog postings and updates in various social media channels.

And just as we no longer sketch ideas on coasters but instead use our iPads, it is within the network that our creativity is fed and our ideas fine-tuned. With this change, as noted earlier, it will be the crowds with which we collaborate where future innovation lies. The fingerprints of the future are definitely visible today on all that we have worked on in the past – perhaps I will just keep the coasters to protect my countertops from the celebrations I am sure will follow!

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