Suggestions on how to enable organisational creativity and innovation for the digital age

We need a radical overhaul of education to enable our learners to thrive in the connected age. Part of that overhaul should look at the organisational structure we use to deliver education. The structure and culture of an organisation determines its ability to be agile, innovative and creative. These, I believe, are the key attributes needed for the digital age. The same challenges face the corporate world and the education world – how to move from a mechanistic to an organic mode of operation. For more on this see organism not mechanism

Professor Richard Foster of Yale University suggests that the lifespan of corporations is dramatically decreasing. From 67 years in the 1920s to 15 years today. If this is the case the challenge is to understand why and see what, if anything, can be done about this trend. Organisations that are agile, innovative and creative will survive longer than those that are not. I suggest that organisational structures are based upon an out-dated model which worked in the 19th and 20th centuries but which is becoming increasingly at odds in the digital age.  The top down culture and rigid hierarchy that worked well in the past does not work in the digital age. Crowd sourcing, social networking, knowledge workers and universal education are the key attributes that have made the older organisational models obsolete.

Compare small start-up companies to large corporates. Most small businesses fail but a few go on to develop new products and services which result in huge growth. There are many examples of this incredible expansion with the likes of Facebook and Youtube being among the more prominent.  Microsoft was seen as one of these innovative companies thirty years ago with its software enabling everyone to use a personal computer rather than leaving computing only to those with access to mainframes. More recently however one of the main means of innovation for Microsoft has been the acquisition of smaller companies. Indeed many Microsoft products stem from the technology of other companies. SQL Server was originally a Sybase product, Powerpoint was originally developed by a company called Forethought, Hotmail, Visio and Dynamics are all core Microsoft products that were acquired through acquisitions rather than internal innovation. I am not saying that Microsoft is not an innovative company but I do think that corporate structures, with all their resources, struggle to innovate in a way that the small start-up can. Should we not worry about this and leave the corporate world to swallow up its smaller, younger and more creative competitors or should we explore the possibility of new organisational structures that are more conducive to innovation? For more on Microsoft see this post about the resignation of Steve Ballmer

While we cannot predict the future, to go forward positively, we need to understand the direction of travel. Technology has replaced many of our jobs. Increasingly machines are becoming better than humans at mechanistic tasks. Their ability grows every day so that they can complete more complex operations. Where does this leave
humans beings in the work place?  Clearly there are many tasks that computers and robots struggle with. I would suggest that these are the more creative and artistic activities.  If we assume that this trend will continue then we need to think about this in relation to education. Education is where we prepare people for the future. The pace of change is such that those doing the educating have a significantly different experience of the world of work to that which their students will encounter.

Here are my suggestions for creating the new organisational structures needed for the digital age:-

  • performance monitoring systems in corporations and the assessment regimes in education need to be able to facilitate this new role for humans and move away from the ‘tick box’ and ‘one size fits all’ approaches that we currently see in place.
  • assessment of performance should be personalised.
  • managers and tutors should move toward a facilitator role rather than a gatekeeper/controller role
  • dissent should be nurtured and encouraged and used to spark creativity
  • ‘mistakes’ should be expected and used for learning across the organisation
  • decision making should be devolved downwards in the structure
  • college and corporate structures should be flatter
  • communication across the organisation should be open and focussed on solutions
  • staff should be employed for their energy, ideas and aptitudes rather than their complicity
  • tutors and staff who can be replaced with a machine should be
  • managers in education and the corporate world should focus on creating an environment in which their staff and learners can flourish
  • managers need to harness and apply the collective intelligence within their organisations
  • teams should be composed of as divergent talents and attributes as possible

Woolworths, Kodak, HMV, Blockbuster and Comet held strong market positions in recent years. They have all now gone or had to be bailed out to survive. If their structures were more modern perhaps they would still be with us today. A similar challenge faces UK universities – see some universities may close.   As we head toward the middle of the 21st century we will see the expansion of the use of technology into many more areas of our social, economic and cultural lives. The key human contribution will stem from our ability to be innovative, creative and artistic. Organisations that are able to structure themselves to enable their staff to be creative will be those that flourish in the future. Those that cannot will fail. The challenge for our educators is to mimic this new structure in their schools and colleges and in their teaching methods so that their learners are equipped for their future rather than their tutors collective histories.