Monday, June 20, 2011

Might "Silo-ing" Be a Good Thing for Interdisciplinary Computing?

Two questions about innovation and interdisciplinary computing are on my mind at the moment (continuing my conversation from the last 3 posts). One question is "what is innovation"/"how does one identify innovation" and the second is "How does one support innovation"?

I'm going to tackle the second question this time, and the first question in the next post. In a comment to my last post Jim L. spoke about the changes that have taken place at RIT over the last decade, and as I replied, I see a lot of innovation at work in the diversifying and splitting off of related computing degree programs.

The approach that RIT appears to have taken (not being privy to internal institutional decisions) in some ways fits with one of the primary tenets of how to nurture and succeed with truly innovative change (the book refers to these changes and technological advances as "disruptive"). The claim is that in order to succeed, an organization must branch off into a separate organization the process, resources and values needed to make the change fly. Sometimes the change is geographic but whether physically remote or not, there are firmly established boundaries drawn between existing institutional culture and the development of a new culture for the innovation to flourish. So when RIT (and I again emphasize that I am speculating here) broke off its computing programs into different areas run by different faculty, I would hazard to guess they were in effect creating new cultural structures. The fact that the programs were very successful, and "students are pouring in the door" reflects doing something seriously right - the Innovator's Dilemma (ID) book is littered with examples of organizations that attempted to create innovative change and failed because the prevailing cultural norms of doing business impeded the change.

Now, where I am particularly curious is Jim's comment that the groups are silo-ing - and that this is a problem. We traditionally view silo-ing as negative. However, from the theoretical stance of the ID book as I interpret it, this behavior may  be a positive. Research and case studies in the book point to example after example where initially separate organizational boundaries were initially successful but flopped when forced by external pressures to re-merge into a larger or pre-existing organizational structure.

Let me be heretical for a moment: Is "silo-ing" in fact a way to maintain healthy boundaries for innovation? 

BUT, and I just throw this out there - intended as a thought that applies well beyond any one school - can silo-ing be viewed as something different? What if we alter our assumptions of what is "good" and "bad"? Just as "traditional ways of doing business" sometimes fail at supporting innovation, and thus one has to re-evaluate what is "good management" in those contexts, is it possible that "silo-ing" or the separation of innovative interdisciplinary groups is a productive thing to maintain?

Following that thought, if successful separate organizations (in the academic departmental/major lingo this would mean degree programs) succeed because they split off and form their own values, processes, resources => culture, is maintaining that separation perhaps a positive event?

There is a wonderful table on page 177 of the ID book, that I don't dare scan in, for fear of copyright violation, but it lays out really nicely  the ways to fit the requirements of an innovation to an organization's capabilities (note: not the same as the people's capabilities who work in that organization). It is worth looking at, because there have been other educational institutions that have succeeded (and failed) in similar innovations and I found the insight gained from studying this table fascinating.

Before I leave off on this post, I want to point to two other educational organizations that are following the most important approach to supporting innovation laid out in The Innovator's Dilemma: creation of a separate protected organization.

One is well established, one is just getting off the ground.

The Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology created a separate entity called Rose-Hulman Ventures, a think tank and incubator of sorts that involves students and industry in collaborative efforts to spark innovation and entrepreneurship (disclosure: I used to work at Rose-Hulman). Ventures, as it is called locally, is in a physically separate location from the main campus, and operates on a very different model than the academic programs. They have had some noteworthy successes.

A very new venture, in the early stages of development is the creation of graduate studies in Wireless Health through the school of Engineering by Case Western Reserve. Case Western is located in Ohio. This program is being set-up in San Diego. You might say (devil's advocate speaking here): "what? a whole program in wireless health?". That would be a typical response from an establishment pov to a radical risky venture - according to the theories of why innovation sometimes gets shut down. On the other hand, they are creating a clear boundary (at least geographically) between the main campus and the location of this program. Now, whether this program succeeds will depend upon many other factors besides location - as we have been discussing. But it is a very interesting example to watch develop and see what happens.

1 comment:

  1. The blog’s theme is interdisciplinary computing for sharing questions and curiosity about the interdisciplinary role of computing with a special concern for how computing can make the world a better place. That’s commendable. I’m not sure I have much to offer in response to “Silo-ing” other than to expand on some of the issues here at RIT to which your refer above.

    It is clear to me that the deconstruction of a very large IT department was inevitable given a number of stresses. The primary one was the desire of a sufficiently large group of faculty to form an entity by themselves. For lack of a better solution, our institution calls them “department.” The freedom to strike out on their own has been beneficial to not one, but two groups over a 4-year period. The resulting expansion of degree programs, excitement within each group and resulting scholarly production has flourished. But nagging issues that can occasionally occlude their efforts such as questionable leadership, fundraising pressures by development (try to get money to name a department is a non-starter but a school is another thing), conflicting scholarly vs. educational/curricular goals and the constant meddling by a university Admissions unit. Are you beginning to get the picture here. RIT now has a president starting his 4th year and a provost starting his 3rd year and they are accomplishing very good things.

    As to your idea of silos, they can be beneficial if an energetic group has the freedom to expand their ideas and they can remain excited. I reject the notion that silos restrict interdisciplinary collaboration. We’ve got silos but our faculty are constantly crossing boundaries to work with one another. Where silos are a negative, is when they are used to pump resources into (or out of) a particular silo to meet the presumed needs as determined by senior university officials. That results in an unhealthy environment that pits faculty against faculty because of resource issues.

    Your dialog with Ray Schneider in the Linkedin ACM SIGCSE is interesting to follow. As a former faculty member at a small school where resources are limited, the problems I describe are traded for problems of another kind. It is encouraging Ray continues to remain excited and optomistic.

    Well done on your blog and good luck.