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Innovation with a Purpose

March 7th, 2009 jonmott Comments

George Siemens recently blogged about a model for evaluating & implementing technology. He dubs it the “IRIS” model, flowing from Innovation, to Research, to Implementation to Systematization. His point is that we need to think about technology differently at each stage of the process:

When we encounter a new tool or a new concept, we are experiencing technology at the innovation level. We’re focused on “what is possible”, not what can be implemented. We’re more concerned about how a new idea/tool/process differs from existing practices. After we’ve had the joy of a shift in thinking and perspective about what is possible, we begin to research and implement. This is a cyclical process. Attention is paid to “how does it work” and “what is the real world impact”. At this level, our goal is to see how our new (innovative) views align with current reality. If a huge disconnect exists, reform mode kicks in and we attempt to alter the system. Most often, that’s a long process. I’m not focused on that option here. I’m making the assumption that many tools can be implemented within the existing system. Finally, once we’ve experimented with options and we have a sense of what works in our organization, we begin the process of systematizing the innovation

I think this is a great model that can guide our level of rigor and attention to detail at each phase of technology emergence. As I noted in a comment to his post, I think an additional dimension to the model ought to be considered at the innovation phase. Not only should we ask “What is possible?” but “Why would we want to do what this new technology makes possible?” Given the enormous amount of time, resources and political capital required to move through the next three phases so elegantly summarized in George’s model, I’m increasingly inclined to spend more time on this question when evaluating new technology.

While I’m sensitive to George’s concern that too much focus on the “why” question might throw a wet blanket on creativity and discovery during the innovation stage, I’m still inclined to ask the question as early as possible. Unless you have a budget set aside purely for research and development (something that seems increasingly unlikely in the current economic situation), it seems prudent to justify even the most innovative technology investigations in terms of the value they might add to teaching & learning. So I’m inclined to ask the “why” question early and often. How would the world be a better place with new technology x, y, or z? Maybe my penchant for asking this question is driven by where I sit at my institution (with responsibility for broad, campus wide technology implementations). But in the end, I think academic technologists of all stripes  have to strike the right balance between wide-open, blue sky innovations and explorations and the more mundane work of aligning resources with priorities and demonstrating the value of our technology investments.

I guess I’m in favor of innovation with a purpose. Is that too restrictive?