Monday, December 19, 2011

Innovation Does Not Happen Online

image source
Shocking, I know. There are those in our community who would have you believe the opposite. Sometimes, they seem so strident in their demand for online interaction as a way to drive collaboration and innovative practice, it's almost as if they think online communities are a prerequisite for innovation.

But, of course, they're not. In fact, I think that sometimes the online community piece actually gets in the way.

You know that I'm involved with WSAE and its innovation efforts. I am, in fact, proud of the work we've done in this regard. We are in the midst of transforming that society and have made signifcant contributions to the discussion around innovation in the association community (much of it, oddly enough, online).

One thing that came out of our Innovation Summit in September 2011 were a handful of innovation networks. These are small groups of association professionals who have mutually committed to each other to bring more innovative practices to their associations in specific areas. One group is focused on best practices in governance. Another is on expanding towards global membership. The one I joined is targeting member engagement and participatory decision-making as our collaborative subject.

Since September we've had two conference calls. On them we've simply continued the discussion we started in Madison. We talk about our objectives and the barriers we face. We share stories of experiments we've tried and help brainstorm around each other's difficulties. In three months time we've spent a total of two hours together on the phone, but it's working. At least, it's working for me. The appointment on my calendar helps me focus my attention on the subject. The peer group helps me take more steps than I otherwise would, knowing that they will want to hear what I'm doing and how things are going.

And throughout it all, the hard-working and well-intentioned WSAE staff have been pushing for us to use an online community they've built and organized for this specific purpose. It's a place, they say, where we can share ideas, post our success stories, upload resources that we've found helpful, and interact in an asynchronous way that only the community allows. And they're right. In theory, the community should mesh better with our busy schedules because we can participate it in at any time, and not have to find the communal hour every 45 days that works in our competing appointment calendars.

Except it doesn't. The community doesn't drive collaboration and connection precisely because it's asynchronous. When you're there, you feel very much alone, and posting there is a steep hill to ask anyone to climb. Go ahead, it seems to say. Put yourself out there. Take all those half-formed ideas and professional uncertainties and post them up on this website. You'll get no immediate feedback and no guarantee that anyone will ever read it and respond in kind. But do it anyway. Because it's innovative. Right?

Sorry, I'll pass. The conference calls may be old school, but through them I am building relationships, sharing ideas, accessing resources, and moving innovative practice forward at my association. Unlike online communities, there are no lurkers on these calls. And best of all, the mechanism aligns with my established patterns of thought and behavior. Yes, it's one extra meeting I have to prepare for and participate in every month or so, but the takeaways are immediate, and they are moving me to action in ways online discussion doesn't.

It's like that stack of books and magazines in the corner of my office that never gets read. They may contain the wisdom of the ages, but I'll never take advantage of it because the process of extracting value from their printed pages is too time consuming and it doesn't show any immediate return.


  1. Interesting take Eric. I wonder if it's the simple reality that we're already engaging in conversations online in other places and that's where these need to move (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.). ASAE's Collaborate seems to be slowly getting some traction.\

    I do agree that conference calls, while old school, still serve a valuable purpose and offer a real ease-of-use. For a designated online community to thrive, it seems to me it needs to offer a very distinct and compelling experience and community connection such as IDEO's site or the Hack Management site.

  2. I agree, Jeffrey. One of the challenges we face comes from the 90-9-1 reality I expressed in the image accompanying my post. Knowing that 90% of community members lurk rather than contribute, you have to grow a large community for the 10% who contribute to start making significant contributions. I wonder how much we hobble ourselves by breaking into so many small communities rather than one large one.