Using the power of the distributed mind to innovate.
The latest McKinsey Quarterly looks at 'Eight business technology trends to watch', and I thought it would be fun to look at the first of these from a South African context. My company does a lot of work for government and parastatals in South Africa, so I will take a view that applies to government in this instance.
The first trend is what McKinsey calls 'Distributing co-creation'. Eish but we are into jargon already, but no matter. What they mean is that Web 2.0 is now at a stage that companies can use people outside their organisation to create new products. Let me take this further – I believe that co-creation can help with any innovation and help companies and departments solve complex problems by tapping into a community of innovative thinkers. This is where co-creation will be most powerful. While the mother company (government department) controls the innovation process, they can use Web 2.0 technologies (collaborative technologies for us laggard jargonists) to essentially outsource their innovation to the community. This is Ubuntu in practice.
So here is a co-creative opportunity: the South African Government is very keen to implement e-Education, and published a white paper in August 2004 on the subject. They put out several tenders for participants to help them in this initiative. The challenges are fierce – in 2004 only 27% of the 26 000 or so South African schools had computers that were used for teaching and learning. Interestingly, in a later tender document in 2005, the Department of Education said that this number was 23%, so it appears that their own intelligence on their own infrastructure is somewhat fuzzy. (However, many large corporates I have worked with also do not know exactly how many computers they have.)
But the more interesting problem (that which requires the most innovation to solve) is the fact that some 25% of schools in South Africa do not have electricity, and 43% do not have telecommunications – some do not even have classrooms. So the solution will not be a simple IT rollout initiative. We have to worry about whether the infrastructure to support these schools is in place. Consider also the technical support of these schools. We worked on a project in the Eastern Cape which has some 6500 schools, many of them in very remote places – how do you support these schools?
In a presentation to the Premier, and various MECs and DGs, we pointed out that to achieve the e-school goals of their eight-year programme they would need to be rolling out 670 PCs per week, in 25 schools per week at the height of the programme. This would involve a team of 135 people, just to roll out the infrastructures. (These numbers are thin on the ground as it is, involving three installation staff per site per week, and 45 training staff, with four project managers). All of this assumes that there is electricity, telecommunications and the e-classrooms have been secured and will remain this way.
To add to the complexity, we would have to start the refresh programme before the roll-out was complete. Finally, we would have to leave behind a support organisation – a power-user at each school and one techie per three schools, which would create 2500 jobs (who would pay these people?) by the time the roll-out was complete. This also requires a lot of training. And this is just one province!
This outlines the size and complexity of the problem. Surely some serious innovation is needed, and my traditional approach to the problem as an IT roll-out has to be improvable in a radical way if we are to succeed.
This is where co-creation may play a role. In January 2007, the Department of Education issued a tender document calling for a transaction advisor to help them manage the anticipated Public Private Partnership that would be set up to provide for e-schooling. We responded to the tender and were shortlisted, but our recommendation may have been a little too radical (or realistic) because we did not make it in the end.
We believed that the problem could not be solved by a traditional project management approach, and that the department had to give serious thought to innovative ways to deliver on e-schooling. For instance we suggested looking at setting up schools in such a way that after school hours, the e-classrooms could become Internet cafés where an SME entrepreneur could run the show and provide technical support during school hours (they do this in Tanzania) – this would resolve much of the technical support problem, and if you were really brave, you could set up these Internet cafés as government e-kiosks where citizens would get access to government forms, services and advice (as is done in India). This approach would solve some of the financing problems, create entrepreneurship and help the government cross their 'digital divide'. But it requires the Education Department to think beyond their particular silo.
These and other ideas are the simple result of a little brainstorming on our part, but what if the government applied the co-creation model to this and other problems. They could set up a collaborative portal to allow people to put their ideas into the mix. We have already done this for our Business Advisor portal and you have to be fairly structured in the way you define the problems and manage the inputs, but it is a very practical and encompassing approach. Imagine who would respond – academics, people on the ground experiencing the problems, vendors and people like myself with a passion for this country and a fervent desire to make a difference. Also an online portal would allow people outside South Africa to contribute. And all this innovation would be free to the government. The Wikipedia and Open Source model shows that people are willing to donate their time and thinking in a good cause.
So a co-creation model requires you to set up a collaborative environment, create the rules for collaboration and the tools for people to contribute. You also need an editorial policy to weed out the chaff, and keep people focused. We have even set up a project environment in which people can spin off specific initiatives as a group of interested individuals, and using templates and research we make available, progress from a simple idea through to a deliverable that can be implemented and tracked online.
Our portal includes a Wiki, which allows people to contribute to the body of knowledge (we have a CIO Wiki, a Governance Wiki, a Procurement Wiki and an SME Wiki). The government could publish their stats (latest status of e-schools, status of electrification, etc) to the Wiki, so everyone could get up-to-date. We also have individual blogs for people to raise issues they believe are important, forums where discussion can be structured, threaded and managed. We have an online survey tool that allows people to take snap surveys of the portal community on the subject of their choice. We also have a Q&A; section for people to ask questions and get answers from experts. There are many other tools that we are working on, all aimed at tapping into the wider community for the benefit of the community.
Where we are faced with complex problems I believe that co-creative innovation is a key method to use to make headway. And I would dearly love to see government making these radical advances for the benefit of our nation and our kids.
Terry White is the author of three books on IT and is a director of MarketWorks Advisory. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org