economy of ideas

The idea that we are knowledge workers
suggests that the processes we use to complete work involve consumption
and creation of knowledge. Knowledge is a substance that is out of band
in relation to the material world, and possibly even the process itself,
although we frequently use corporeal objects to store knowledge. I might
tie a ribbon around my finger to remember something, break branches in
the forest to remember my way back, jot down a note in my moleskine,
or ask someone close to me to remind me.

The knowledge worker is a relatively mainstream concept now. Google
claims that the population of the rising economy will be the self empowered innovators. This is interesting
since Google is arguably one of the most innovative companies in the
world. It appears to me that there is some common wisdom that innovation
is key to a business’ success. The reason businesses rise and fall in
an economy is often credited to their ability to innovate. The typical
story of business in an economy follows the shape of a bell curve.

Innovation and the Bell Curve

Companies attempt to “stay ahead of the curve,” at the leading part of
the curve. This is said to be where innovation happens. Typically a
young company will develop new techniques, or a new idea. This innovation
puts them at the bleeding edge of the bell curve. As time goes on,
people figure out how to capitalize on the success of the companies
that are ahead of the curve. At the same time, other companies replace
the now aging companies position as the leading edge of the curve.
Times marches forward, and both techniques and people follow the path of
the curve, until ideas and services become mainstream (at which point they
are the norm, not new, and usually not categorized as innovative), and
eventually they slope around into the position at the end of the curve.
This position is called the long tail, and isn’t necessarily a bad place
to be.

The bell curve shows that there is the least amount of people at both
the leading and tail ends of the curve. However, there appears to be
much more demand at the leading edge of the curve. This means that the
most lucrative position is at the leading position. The main factors
that position individuals and companies at the leading edge of the curve
is innovation (since I am talking about a bell curve describing adoption
of innovation). However, how can a company stay in the leading position?
Once sufficiently big, companies become rigid, and resistance to change.
This means it becomes harder for them to adopt new, innovative ideas
and practices, since they are focused primarily on scaling their
once innovative ideas and practices, and have a responsibility not to
abandon them.

It would seem that it is impossible to constantly innovate.
How can a company sustain innovation? That’s where the self-empowered innovator comes into the scene.
Most companies sustain employees in return for employees sustaining
work. Knowledge work is the consumption and creation of knowledge: not
much room for innovation. Knowledge workers fulfill an obligation to
sustain the processes that allow implementations of old ideas to work.
This obligation precludes a worker’s ability to implement new ideas,
because their sustenance depends on the company.

However, self-empowered workers do not depend on this fulfillment of
obligation for sustenance. Self-empowered workers are free, at any
time, to implement new ideas, because this obligation is minimized.
Fulfilling obligations is the gate to entering an arrangement where
innovation supercedes the obligation to sustain old ideas. The new
contract between a company and a worker is now one in which the company
sustains individuals in return for keeping the company at the most
lucrative position at the head of the curve.

Potential Problems

Admittedly, at first glance there seems to be a lot of problems with
this arrangement. It seems like an unreasonable expectation. How can
workers constantly come up with new ideas? Won’t old ideas, products,
and services suffer if no one tends to them?

The key realization here is that there are many kinds of people. There
aren’t creative people and non-creative people: just people of varying
degrees of many factors. There are many kinds of people that
come up with ideas. Instead of obligating them to fulfill old ideas,
they are now obligated to come up with new ideas. That seems like an
unstainable relationship. However, the kind of people that get ideas
tend to get more. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,
Pirsig reveals that as a young man, he learned to never worry about
coming up with new ideas. However hard a problem was, he found that he
always came up with new ideas.

The same is true for many people, and in fact, the more ideas I come up
with and share, the more ideas arrive. So why is it so many people try
to keep ideas secret? I believe this is a grave mistake. Remember,
many people never run out of ideas. However, ideas don’t improve if
they aren’t discussed. Without discussing ideas, you can’t find where
faults and weaknesses lie, and you can’t rally people around it, either.
It turns out, there’s probably not much risk in freely sharing ideas.

What if someone steals your idea?

First of all, I’m not sure
there is much risk here. Remember, many people get ideas. Most people
probably have ideas of their own, and being their own, they are biased
towards executing their own ideas, not yours. Therefore, there’s very
low risk of being stolen by other innovators. That leaves people who
don’t get very many ideas. Many modern ideas are really, really hard
to implement. Can one person even implement your idea? I suspect
that most ideas need collaboration between many types of people.
If there is a conflict, and someone really does steal your idea (which I believe is probably rare; does anyone have real
evidence on this?
), remember: if you are an idea person,
another one will come shortly. In fact you probably already have
more ideas than you can even work on.

Finally, the marketplace is a complex place. One way consumers know
where to get things is to find out where other people are getting them.
People with lots of good ideas will be respected for them, even in the
rare event where an idea is stolen, people may be able to recognize it
as such, and respect the original creator for the value of their ideas.

Won’t old ideas and services suffer?

No, I don’t think so.
Again, remember that there are many kinds of people, and many types of
ideas, and many factors that make up people. For example, people have
varying degrees of passion, different kinds of ideas, and different types
of ambitions. For some, ideas about how to keep services running and
stable will be seductive. For others, ideas on how to revolutionize
industry foundations will be seductive. Different people will have
different ideas, and different people will expend effort in different
areas, including legacies.

But Which Ideas?

There are two strategies for choosing ideas.
Some people have better ideas than others. It can be difficult to evaluate
which ideas should be pursued, and which ones should be dropped.

However, rather than trying to predict which one is hypothetically better,
it’s easier to let the market decide. The marketplace will choose the
ideas that become successful, anyway. It’s not the company’s choice, it
is the consumer’s choice. This is the approach Google chose to take. Google
has created so many products because they encourage implementing ideas. There
is no need to choose among them, and their employees are empowered to innovate
and implement reasonable ideas. The products that fail fail because of the
market, and the ideas that succeed do so because of the market. Failure is
irrelevant, because their employees will always have more ideas. If an
product/idea succeeds, Google can always figure out how to monetize it (like
they did with search) after it has become popular. Google’s success so far
indicates that this is a successful plan.

If resources are limited, companies may not be able to enable the fruition of
all ideas. If this is the case, how will a company know which ideas are good
enough to warrant effort? Choose the ideas with the least amount of change.
Then iterate towards better ideas. When scientists change something, they
change as little as possible in between tests.

Enable Your Innovators, Share Your Ideas

The more ideas you pursue, the better and more plentiful they will be.


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