Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Science Fiction (Sci-Fi) as a Stimulus For Innovation

As part of my role as a Facilitator for Warwick Business School’s “Knowledge & Innovation Network” (KIN), I was privileged to be invited to a Sci-Fi Symposium organised by the Defence, Science &Technology Laboratory (Dstl). The event took place just before Christmas 2017, and was led by Dr John Carney, Principal Scientist and Mrs Caz Pitt (Innovation Process & Culture Lead) at Dstl. , The aim of the Symposium was  to explore whether the stimulus of Science Fiction might enable the development of new solutions and provide unexpected insights into future security and military challenges.

With this year’s schedule of events for KIN being focussed primarily on innovation practices and techniques, I was interested to learn whether the format for this event could be applied more generally as a stimulus for innovation within other KIN member organisations, or adapted as a model for the wider public and private sectors. I think we would all agree that British industry is facing an uncertain future, and we must be able to survive and thrive in an increasingly competitive global market. We can only do this with innovative products and services, delivered at competitive prices and assured quality.

The objectives for the symposium were defined as follows:

·       To provide a forum for verbal interaction between Science Fiction writers, Academics with a specialism in science fiction and/or creative writing, scientists and other interested parties from across the Ministry of Defence and wider Government.
·       To educate Government scientists in the value of creative writing and thinking differently.
·       To stimulate small group discussions on (pre-prepared) defence and security challenges through the perspective of science fiction with a view to generating new insights and ideas
Having set the context for the day, we heard from various academics and Sci-Fi authors who provided short briefings with the aim of providing stimulus for the group discussion activities that followed, as follows:

·       Dr Ping Zheng (University of Canterbury) and Dr Victor Callaghan (University of Essex) on how science fiction and fantasy have been used to stimulate innovation.
·       Alastair Reynolds – former Space Scientist turned Sci-Fi author
·       Nicole Devarenne - Lecturer in English and Film Studies with special interests in South African literature and film, science fiction and speculative fiction
·       Sean McFate – Expert in Future of War, author and novelist, including Tom Locke novels.
·       Nick Harkaway – Sci-Fi author, who reminded us that Sci-Fi is not always good at predicting the future.
Interspersed with the scene setting and networking activities, the core part of the day was based around small group discussions on 11 different challenges. The challenges were set by various Dstl subject matter experts and consisted of a broad theme and a summary briefing, setting out the problem or challenge and what was required from the group. Members of the 11 groups were allocated based on the preferences they had selected as part of the pre-symposium delegate instructions. Each group discussion lasted for 1 hour, and was led by a Dstl presenter and supported by a Dstl rapporteur, who summarised the outcomes from the discussion as part of a plenary feedback at the end of the day. The symposium was organised such that participants were able to contribute to at least two group discussions during the day.

Just to give some context to the group discussions, the headline topics for the 11 challenges were as follows:

1.     Radiation Protection for Humans
2.     Digital Diplomat
3.     Safe Spaces
4.     Human Behaviour in Smart Environments *
5.     Defence (in)efficiency: what does the future hold?
6.     Making our people more capable, in less time *
7.     Understanding and Exploring Threat
8.     Please report to the information assurance bureau for re-education
9.     Societal reactions to new technologies
10.  Expeditionary Warfare
11.  Where’s the baddie?
I think you will see from the above that - with some obvious exceptions – many of the topics could apply to just about any organisation seeking innovative ideas for improving performance.  The two groups that I participated in are shown asterisked, specifically chosen because the subject was fairly generic and played more to my personal knowledge and experience.

The key dynamic which (I believe) contributed to the overall success of this seminar, was the ‘free-thinking’ stimulus developed initially from the pre-workshop presentations, and the diversity of knowledge, experience and personality within each discussion group. Either by accident or design (I think the latter), each group had a blend of academics, Sci-Fi authors, subject matter experts and practitioners. An unusual mix, some might say, and the logistics of assembling such a cohort cannot be underestimated.

I don’t have the detailed outcomes from all of the discussion groups, but the two groups I participated in generated a number of new ideas that haven’t previously been explored by Dstl. Of course, turning these ideas into practical solutions may not be always possible, and this may ultimately be the measure of success for this type of seminar. However, based on my own experience, and with reference to the title of this blog, I think that Sci-Fi did indeed provide a stimulus for innovation in our discussions.

The question is, whether the overall approach could be a template for any organisation or sector that is serious about wanting to innovate or challenge institutional inertia. The cost and logistics of assembling the diversity of talent will be a major factor, but I think the process is scalable, i.e. a focus on fewer challenges with fewer participants. I don’t think it has to necessarily include a Sci-Fi element (though this might be useful for more technologically-oriented organisations) but does need to include participants with imagination and creative skills.
Authors and novelists seem to fit this criterion, but it would be useful to explore other creative arts, such as musicians, artists, actors etc., people who are more likely to think differently to civil servants or corporate employees. Innovation means doing things differently, and that starts with thinking differently. This will no doubt be the challenge for many organisations, moribund in “group think”.

Dstl will be presenting the lessons learnt and some highlights from this Sci-Fi Symposium at their showcase stand at the KIN Spring Workshop, The London Shard, 22nd March 2018. Not to be missed!

Other Reference Links:

Steve Dale

KIN Facilitator

Monday, 27 November 2017

Book review: 'Fast/Forward, make your company fit for the future' by Julian Birkinshaw (keynote speaker at KIN Workshop Spring 2018)

There's been some push-back recently regarding the benefits of the digital revolution. Julian Birkinshaw's book Fast/Forward suggests that organisations that embrace 'adhocracy', make smart intuitive decisions and act decisively will be the best prepared for uncertainty. Whilst it would seem that this almost defines small, agile firms, the book is full of examples of large corporations that have done this successfully.

The core principles of Fast/Forward are built around what he calls 'The four paradoxes of progress'. 

1. Creative destruction. A heretical idea challenges orthodoxy (Darwin or IKEA), disbelief of the establishment (Nokia), followed by the innovator becomes the establishment (Microsoft).

2. The more we know the less we understand. 'Whilst the human race is becoming collectively more knowledgeable every year, each of us (as individuals) is becoming relatively more ignorant'. 'Relatively' is the key word here due to the exponential increase in digital information available, compared to the linear rate of learning by us as individuals. Birkinshaw makes the case that team and networking can to some degree mitigate this paradox.

3. Connectivity and unpredictability.  Competing on computational power has become a race to the bottom when it comes to solving complexity. 'There is a risk that the combination of new technology and old questions means that you end up with answers that are exactly wrong, rather than roughly right'. This is where the book makes the case for more agile management, particularly experimentation and learning.

4. Knowing and believing. Ironically, the torrent of data pouring into our lives may mean that we may inadvertently be making decisions by 'appeals to our emotions, our intuitive beliefs and our hidden values'. Fast/Forward suggests that this is no bad thing and may be a way of business leaders differentiating themselves. The example cited is Apple, where product design was as much about beliefs and emotions as it was about hard-headed business.

The concept of 'Adhocracy' is not new. Alvin Tofler explored the idea of flexibility in dealing with uncertainty in his 1973 book Future Shock. Birkinshaw updates the concept for the big data and machine learning age. He also neatly contrasts it with meritocracy and bureaucracy. 
I was glad to see that rather than dismissing bureaucracy as an outmoded concept, he considers the merits of each and proposes a 'Trinity in Reality' model. 

The main call-to-action for me is in the chapter 'Linking Strategy Back to Purpose'. 'Leaders need to make a stronger emotional connection to those around them, rather than allowing sterile, data-driven decision making to dominate their actions, reactions and responses'. Birkinshaw suggests that organisations should put 'pro-social' goals first, for example hire for attitude and train for skill (most organisations do the reverse). There are many examples cited of large organisations that clearly instil a sense of moral purpose (Tata, Arla, SouthWest Airlines) whilst innovating to break orthodox organisational models. 

With all the excitement (and fear) around AI, big data and machine learning, it is easy to lose sight of vital business principles and values. The first half of Fast/Forward can be seen as a useful playbook for leaders wanting guidance on how to meld a technology revolution, give a clear sense of purpose for their organisations in an increasingly complex world and to embrace disruption.

Julian Birkinshaw is keynote speaker at the KIN Spring 2018 members' workshop 'Reimagining the Innovative Organisation'. This will take place at The Shard in London on 22nd March 2018.

Authors: Julian Birkinshaw, Jonas Ridderstrale
Published 2017 
Stanford Business Books 
ISBN 9780804799539

Thursday, 23 November 2017

A new epoch in knowledge and decision-making

There comes a time when significant shifts in our world demand that we look again at the models we have lived with for years. For example, it's broadly accepted that the Holocene epoch (marked by the end of the last ice age) has now given way to the Anthropocene epoch  (marked by humanities physical impact on Earth). I don't claim equivalence, but suggest that our knowledge framework also needs a seismic overhaul.

We've modelled the Knowledge and Innovation Network on sound research and practice that takes into account, and differentiates between, explicit/codified knowledge, tacit know-how and networked knowledge. Each 'generation' or mode is equally important, but requires very different approaches to stewardship and leverage.

None of these three modes take into account the enormous impact of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning on decision-making. These are not just technological developments but are impacting trust, 'expertise' and are pervasive. As my colleague Steve Dale puts it:
  • Data and technology democratisation is about creating an environment where every person can use data to make better decisions. But are we all competent enough to trust the decisions being made by algorithms we can't see or understand?
  • The world of data-driven intelligence is evolving. Big data is now moving from the sole care of data scientists and becoming accessible to employees throughout organisations. The mystique surrounding data analytics is falling away, with sophisticated data visualisation tools designed to let non-technically-minded people understand metrics. Information that supports “good” business or policy decisions is just a click away.
  • Algorithms are replacing intuition in terms of establishing “truth”. Algorithmic prediction, which is essentially the use of the available bodies of data in order to predict the future, is replacing expertise inference.
I suggested to my KIN colleagues that we add a fourth column called 'Augmented Knowledge'. A healthy debate followed. In order to settle things, the proposed new framework is shown below. As well as the new fourth column, other proposed changes are shown in bold. What do you think?

The debate will continue at the KIN Winter Workshop on 6th December 'Data driven Decision Making', being chaired by Steve Dale.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Decision making needs both AI and a healthy dose of gut-feel

The case for AI 
The KIN Autumn Workshop on 6th December is on 'Data-driven decision making'. As Steve Dale, the workshop facilitator says...

"The world of data-driven intelligence is evolving. Big data is now moving from the sole care of data scientists and becoming accessible to employees throughout organisations. The mystique surrounding data analytics is falling away, with sophisticated data visualisation tools designed to let non-technically-minded people understand metrics. Information that supports “good” business or policy decisions is just a click away".

The implication is that decisions that are based upon empirical data through data are evidentially better. In fairness, Steve does point out that reliance on back-box algorithmic data must always be used with caution (although in many cases, it is impossible to validate or even understand how algorithms come up with results). As we have seen in a previous KIN workshop on 'Evidence-based decision making', AI algorithms and analytics may simply reflect innate biases, making them appear superficially 'trustworthy'.

If these caveats can be taken in to account, AI and machine learning is certainly going to make us smarter and our decisions more evidence-based. That's a good thing, no?

The case for Intuition
At KIN we are always looking for alternative perspectives that sometimes challenge orthodoxy or 'trends'. Julian Birkinshaw, our keynote speaker for the KIN Spring 2018 workshop 'Reimagining the Innovative Organisation' will certainly do that. In his new book 'Fast Forward', Julian proposes that over-reliance on IT, big-data and advanced analytics actually reduces competitive advantage.

"At corporate level, we end up with analysis paralysis, endless debate, and a bias toward rational, scientific evidence at the expense of intuition or gut feel."

There is a need for current management models to take into account the agility provided by ubiquitous data and upstart disintermediators. Similarly, managers' skills honed to support meritocracy will need to change to reflect adhocracy. These must draw on intuition as much as evidence if organisations are to constantly innovate.

On balance of course, rapid decisions, based on sound data-driven evidence that influences experiential judgment are an ideal. The reality is that time-critical decisions, an inability to understand the source of algorithmic outputs, engrained biases and shouty bosses all conspire to make decisions less perfect. 

It will be fascinating to explore the balance of Intuition and Data-driven decisions over the course of the KIN Winter and KIN Spring workshops. In the meantime, if you are want to balance an AI dominated view, I recommend reading 'Fast/Forward'.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Impact of Automation & AI In The Workplace

Warwick Business School’s Knowledge & Innovation Network (KIN) and Norton Rose Fulbright (NRF) will be facilitating a breakfast briefing during Workplace Week (13-17th November) on the topic of 'Automation & AI in the workplace'.

Workplace automation is becoming more widespread, and today’s AI-enabled, information-rich tools are increasingly able to handle jobs that in the past have been exclusively done by people (including tax returns, language translations, accounting, even some types of surgery) – automation is destined to have profound implications for the future world of work.

McKinsey recently reported that 30 percent of activities for 60 percent of occupations are now technically automatable. We will look at some of the evidence that supports this claim; how this is likely to change the workplace environment; the jobs, roles and skills that are being (or will be) affected, and whether these changes are heralding new opportunities or fuelling a dystopian future.  It will be a lively discussion!

The breakfast briefing is scheduled for Wednesday 15th November, from 8.30am to 10am, and is being hosted by Norton Rose Fulbright (NRF) at their futuristic offices at 3 More London Riverside London, SE1 2AQ. As part of the session, NRF will share valuable insight to a global productive search solution they have recently implemented within their own workplace in order to maximise efficiency.  Guests will also be invited to join a private tour of NRF’s impressive workplace, including their spectacular roof-top garden.

This event is one of many taking place during Workplace Week, which aims to raise funds for the BBC's Children In Need charity. Ticket price is £32, all of which goes to Children In Need . KIN and NRF are providing their services at zero cost.
More details and ticket purchase is available from the Workplace Week website.

Places are limited, so if the topic, breakfast, panoramic views of London from NRF's iconic rooftop garden and the opportunity to contribute to a worthwhile cause appeal to you, book your tickets now!