Create early, use often: Lego™ blocks, learning objects, and ecosystems. Part 1

Notes on the practice of innovation and technology commercialization

“Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature.”
David Hume (1711–76).  An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

A handful of years ago a colleague of mine from the World Bank and I were having coffee in Washington DC with visitor from South Africa. She was listing the skills and tools that she believed South Africa needed to improve technology transfer and commercialization, especially from universities. At that time I had never worked anywhere in Africa, but I was stunned by the realization that some 90% of the items in our visitor’s list of wants and needs were identical to those of the countries in Eastern and Central Europe where I had more experience. Since then this commonality of needs has been verified by working in many other countries from Colombia to Kazakhstan.

In this blog I argue that there is unnecessary and frequent reinvention in creating technology commercialization systems, especially in developing countries, resulting in unnecessarily high transaction costs and less than optimum efficiency.  Reusable knowledge tools, analogous to more general reusable knowledge or learning objects, can reduce reinvention of known processes, lower transaction costs, and increase technology commercialization efficiency. This is important because more and more developing countries are attempting to build ecosystems around technological innovation. To be clear, when I use the terms ‘learning object’ I mean a digital resource that can be reused to facilitate learning. In the application discussed here it’s helpful to think of a learning object for what it does (an agent) rather than what it is (its properties).

Wait a moment. Am I going against what I was preaching in an earlier blog about context and cutting and pasting solutions without paying attention to context? To be honest, maybe – a little. In Solving the Right Problem: part 1, March 24, 2013. I stated “Solving the right problem is all about context. A problem comes embedded in its own context; apparently similar problems in different contexts may have very different solutions. Likewise, solutions have their own contexts.” In the first part of that blog I looked look at one way of identifying a problem which may also bring out its context and suggest possible solutions. In Part 2 of the blog, Fallibility and the Making of Good Decisions, problem solving and decision making in Rainforest ecosystems was discussed. Let’s see what, if anything, has changed.

I always have fun playing with my granddaughter’s Lego™ blocks, and the Lego™ block analogy is used frequently whenever knowledge is being collected and assembled from disparate resources. Mary Adams and Michael Oleksak in their 2010 book Intangible Capital: Putting knowledge to work in the 21st century organization speak about using Lego™ blocks to build models of a knowledge factory such as Google search or a medical device company (see the video “You can grow like Google”

Wouldn’t it be great if we could build technology commercialization programs, and more broadly supportive ecosystems, by plugging Lego™ blocks of learning into each other? There is an appealing simplicity. In the second part of this blog we will use some examples to see how far we might go, discuss the limitations of the Lego™ block analogy, and suggest that a reluctance to apply reusable knowledge tools to problems arises from a misunderstanding of the role of context.

We will also introduce the concept of ‘contextual qualifiers’ which are those pieces of knowledge that allow a user to assess whether a given policy or practice, implemented elsewhere, is truly relevant or applicable to the user’s environment. Conditional qualifiers are statements, which refer to knowledge Lego™ blocks (documents, videos, etc.) which ‘qualify’ the knowledge presented as being dependent on certain conditions.

As I was preparing this blog a Harvard Business Review article was published: Consulting on the Cusp of Innovation by Clayton Christensen, Dina Wang, and Derek van Bever (HBR October 2013, pp. 106 – 114) which discusses how incumbent consulting firms are being eroded by technology and other forces. The authors note that “only a limited number of consulting jobs can be productized but that will change as consultants develop new intellectual property. New IP leads to new toolkits and frameworks, which in turn lead to further automation and technology products.” In this new business model, consultants may not always re-invent solutions; a move away from work where value depends primarily on “consultants’ judgment rather than repeatable processes.” The authors call this “value-adding process business” in which “processes are usually repeatable and controllable.”

I’m guilty of raising several issues and leaving them hanging. Next time these will be pulled together and some conclusions drawn about the feasibility of reusable knowledge tools in technology commercialization.

One Comment on “Create early, use often: Lego™ blocks, learning objects, and ecosystems. Part 1”

  1. […] in my last blog Create early, use often: Lego™ blocks, learning objects, and ecosystems. Part 1… in which I speculated about the appealing simplicity of building technology commercialization […]

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