In the complex world we live in today, content, the expressed thoughts of people, is ever-present and unavoidable. We are constantly bombarded by a perpetual ‘rain’ of content created by people discussing their work or play and others work or play. This never ceasing deluge of facts, opinions, perspectives, beliefs and expressions of attention pour out from the world of human interaction and engagement.
We are also surrounded by the manifest world of nature and artifacts[i] in which we live. The cumulative body of what is known (or thought to be known) that has been processed, analyzed, synthesized, and acted upon to be made relevant to one or more aspects of human thought and experience. This is the ‘ocean’ of manifest knowledge in which we live – the world of things and the body of knowledge that we create. These creations, the artifacts we live with, have both a material and an immaterial nature to them that is the expression of the selected and interpreted body of content their creators used to bring them into being.
Any expressed statement of data, information or knowledge is fodder for the innovator who is sensing, learning, filtering and synthesizing anything and everything that will inform the next opportunity. When embarking on a new journey of innovative exploration, the innovator needs to cast as wide and diverse a net as is feasible. The more content the better – up to a point. Initially, deciding the truth or falsity of statements, their expression of fact, opinion, or belief, is irrelevant. Statements exist in whatever form they emerge and they need to be dealt. The issue is deciding what statements to pay attention to. Which ones are potentially meaningful. These ‘drops’ of content, the statements that make up the rain are, in epistemological terms, propositions. In practical terms, they are ‘snippets’, short, distinct, cohesive, and unitary capsules of content. This terminology is meant to distinguish the snippet, the distinct ‘drop’ of content, from the sources in which they are embedded, the article, blog post, paper, book, web site etc.. The problem is even more difficult when sources such as personal observations and conversations are also included in the world of content – as they need to be.
One of the problems the innovator has is that with the search tools available today, it’s relatively easy to find relevant sources (articles, posts etc.). It’s much more difficult to find snippets of consequence. Even the most advanced and intelligent search engines and content aggregators, are very good at finding relevant sources but fail miserably at identifying the snippets of consequence. Even within the densest, highly structured scientific paper or the seminal, erudite book, the pieces of true, meaningful and relevant content are typically few. The rest is filling – story, explanation, justification, context – meant to allow people to grasp the meaning of the relatively few snippets. Figure 1 illustrates this situation. It is a short section from a blog entry by Michael Schrage talking about Four Innovation Trends to Watch in 2013. The highlighted sentence is the key snippet (from this section) that encapsulates the important knowledge concept, the key ‘takeaway’. The rest is (sometimes interesting) filler.
Figure 1 – Snippet within a Source[ii]
In addition, snippets themselves are not always cohesively expressed. It would be nice, when reading an article or post to be able to highlight the connected sentence or two that encapsulates the entirety of the interesting, unitary concept. But anyone who has tried to highlighted the phrases of significance within an article and then tried to extract, synthesize and summarize the highlights into a unitary, cohesive statement, this is rarely the case. People naturally talk and write in a manner in which the snippet of interest is contained in disconnected phrases using imprecise and often rambling terms.
The basic unit of content – the snippet – is exemplified by the 140 character tweet, the blog post within which one or two sentences are relevant, the news article that has a few interesting observations or the scientific paper where the abstract encapsulates most of what needs to be known. It is through the aggregation, integration and synthesis of snippets that a change in knowledge and insight is affected and it is the change in knowledge and insight that is the basis for innovation, the creation of new to the world artifacts.
Content emerges as these drops of rain. Science creates rain, research creates rain, the daily outpourings from pundits, experts, bloggers, and people everywhere are rain. It is how the rain is transformed into the ocean of codified knowledge and artifact that is the province of the innovator.
While the analogy of content and artifact to the rain and the ocean is an imperfect one, it does convey and contrast the constant, chaotic drumbeat of voluminous drops (or snippets) with the eternal, vast, slow changing substance of the ocean (accumulated knowledge and artifact). The raindrop strikes a surface and its fate is analogous to the fate of the content snippet. Some raindrops evaporate, never to have really existed and having virtually no effect on the world. Others are absorbed and get taken up by plants or accumulate in aquifers where their effect is indirect and often muted. Other raindrops merge to form rivulets, streams, rivers, lakes, seas and, eventually oceans, that vast repository of accumulated knowledge, insight and, hopefully wisdom. Unlike actual rain and oceans, however, the snippets of data, information and knowledge are transformed into artifacts of value through purposeful action. Content and artifact interact with each other in complex and intricate ways. Content is transformed into artifact and therefore itself becomes a new source of content when people experience it. Figure 2 illustrates this complex interaction.
Figure 2 – Content and Artifact Interaction
One of the ways of thinking about innovation is as the means of transforming the constant torrent of content, the snippets, into actual, manifest artifacts of value that exist in the world and become part of the established experience of adopters. This act of taking the new, in the form of nascent, raw, immediate, and unconnected snippets of content, and turning them into something real and tangible is the is the essence of the innovative act.
A recent innovation project undertaken by one of the largest insurance providers in the US focused on healthcare innovation related to the future of the healthcare provider. During this project, the team responsible for identifying new, strategic opportunities recognized that understanding the nature of the complex dynamics of the healthcare system was critical and that content related to the transformation of healthcare is of unimaginable volume and is increasing exponentially. One of the things they needed to accomplish was have some mechanism to find those snippets that would allow them to form the insights they needed.
This rain of content really is a deluge and it’s only getting worse. A prepared team of innovators, using the right tools and methods, can find the snippets that lead to insights and concepts for new opportunities. In this case, a total of around 1000+ snippets were extracted from the many hundreds of sources of content examined. These snippets were the distilled data, information and knowledge the team used to create 14 new opportunity concepts as well as a provider view of the future of healthcare.
The activities that surrounded the discovery and extraction of these 1000+ snippets and the opportunity concepts and future insights that were the objectives of this effort, were not simple or easy to do. A lot of intense work, over a period of 6 months, was expended to learn, in essence, a body of understanding that could inform decisions about what paths to take. The fact that it was 1000 or so snippets, and not 10,000 or 100 is important. The human mind has only a finite capacity to understand complexity. There needs to be enough there to represent the complexity of the system being explored yet not too much to be able to process as a whole or too little to miss important aspects. Whether 1000 is the right number or not can be debated but, in this instance, it worked well.
Much has been written about the nature of knowledge. The field of philosophy called epistemology is devoted to it (see Epistemology or On Epistemology for introductions to the field). The philosophical approach to epistemology focuses on the relation of knowledge to truth, belief, justification and other aspects of the human experience. This theoretical and scientific realm of epistemological study is important for an innovator to understand, at least at a high level.
The practical aspect of epistemology discussed here is the transformation of content into artifact. An innovation, in a practical sense, exists (i.e. manifests a real set of truths) and is adopted (i.e. beliefs in its effects and human experiences of it can be demonstrated). In this sense, an innovation is knowledge made real and issues of belief, justification and other aspects of knowledge that are the backbone of philosophical discussion are secondary.
So what are the practical implications of the transformation of content into valued artifact – the rain becoming the ocean? The first is the way in which the innovator deals with the ‘rain’. We should be encouraging as much rain as possible from as many different sources as we can, and, at the same time, be developing the tools to deal with the onslaught and to help us both get hit by the drops that count and form these drops into the streams, rivers and oceans they can become. In other words, to become more efficient and quicker at selecting relevance, divining patterns, and synthesizing concepts.
Secondly, we should be contributing to the deluge ourselves. What good is an innovator if they do not create content that other innovators can see? We should be prodigious generators of good content, content that can be redily discovered and ‘snipped’. The content we create should be valuable because, naturally, we have directly experienced the effects of bad content. This is often easier said than done. Content creation takes time, as does content absorption and transformation. It’s hard to do both at once, But we need to try.
Third, and most importantly, we should be developing new ways to become weather predictors. We need to be able to see where the next rain shower will develop and to predict its shape, speed and direction. By doing this, we can also become better weather influencers, creating the next rain shower and taking advantage of it.
[i] An artifact is a human created entity that persists in some form and has an effect on the human experience.
[ii] From Michael Schrage’s entry dated December 28, 2012 on the HBR Blog Network