Digital Experimentation

About 15 years ago I read Nicholas Negroponte’s excellent book, Being Digital. Of all the stories he told to paint a picture of how digital technology would change our lives in the future, the one I remember the most is about the fridge that would automatically order fresh products when supplies were running low.

What struck me at the time was that of all the many wonderful and potentially life-changing applications of digital technology we might think of, the thing we always come back to is how it can help us feed our faces.

I was reminded of this when speaking to a client today about an experience they are having, implementing an internal collaboration platform. In grumbling tones, the client made passing mention of the fact that most people are using the new platform to talk about what they are having for lunch that day. Certainly not the reason the company has invested several hundred thousand dollars in enterprise collaboration software!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the client seemed intent on finding a way to curb this lunchtime chat and force employees into more “productive” lines of dialogue.

It occurred to me though that this conversation is entirely healthy and should even be encouraged. It’s a sign of people experimenting with a new technology, testing its purpose and capabilities and where and how it can be applied. We do this by returning to our most basic human needs and exploring how it helps us satisfy them.

The same applies to social media. In the early days of Twitter, my feed was full of updates from the people I followed about their breakfast, lunch and dinner plans. As we’ve discovered a purpose for the platform and established some tacit principles for its good use as a community, those posts have gradually declined; or at least they have done in my feed!

The same principle applies in a business environment. To establish a truly social business culture and reap all the benefits that has to offer, the organisation must be prepared to tolerate experimentation by its employees. In other words, by providing a space in which people can play and experiment safely, true creativity and innovation can emerge.

After all, some of the best ideas come up over lunch.

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