The #1 thing business can (and should) learn from science

As someone who’s now a business consultant, but originally trained in a scientific discipline (physical chemistry if you need to know), I’m usually pleasantly surprised that my formal scientific training has been very applicable in the business world.  So I’m going to give up what that, admittedly pretty simple, edge is – Scientific Method

See, in most BSc courses, you slowly (don’t ask me why they don’t teach it by itself) pick up the scientific method, which is a body of knowledge to investigate phenomena (stuff that happens).  The process usually cycles repeatedly through the following steps:

  1. Find phenomena that you want to understand (more)
  2. See what information there is about this phenomena, or similar phenomena
  3. Collect data of the phenomena using whatever methodology seems appropriate
  4. Construct a hypothesis as to why this phenomena occurs
  5. Test your hypothesis through experiment and data analysis (start again if it doesn’t)
  6. Draw conclusions

Obviously the methodologies differ (e.g. substitute spectroscopy for market research), but I thinkthis process is pretty applicable to any business phenomena (ensuring you use the appropriate level of analysis to task) that you would like to understand more.

If I can make one more point about another thing that scientists could teach business (and the general public for that matter), it’s that:

Everything is a theory, nothing is a law.

All this means is that you should never get attached to your ideas/descriptions, they might work today, or in a very specific context but there will be a better explanation down the track, hopefully you’ll have something to do with that one too.

I’ll make a little comment that this thinking probably isn’t that new, in fact I’ve found a few blog posts on the topic including this great one.

p.s. For the pedants out there, the one component that doesn’t directly (although this isn’t a deal breaker for me) translate from the scientific method to business which I therefore left out is the concept of repeatability.  Usually market processes are irrepeatable, and must be estimated from historical data (this is the one shortfall of economics in general really).  Maybe some six sigma master ninjas would disagree with me…

ThinkTank a social insight/ideation platform

In my article yesterday about technology driven idea generation I listed a bunch of platforms for doing different forms of “ideation” (idea generation).  I just came across another one specifically for ideation through social networks this morning called ThinkTank (link) which has been developed by Expert Labs and Lifehacker founder Gina Trapani.  Currently it works with twitter, but is progressing towards both Facebook and Google Buzz integration.  Also great is that it’s open source, so you can install it on your own server and customise it (if you’re a PHP maven).

Apparently it’s progressing towards being used by the white house for idea gathering, and looks like a real platform to watch.


Four technology driven ways to develop ideas collaboratively

I’ve recently been looking into interesting alternative ways of facilitating idea generation for organisations and came up with four tool types that I think hold promise for creating alternative mechanisms for idea generation.

Idea generation is a key activity for many organisations, but the meeting driven (and meetings are the source of most ideas) idea generation model doesn’t always work for a few reasons:

  • Location – firms are increasingly distributed and new work options are only going to increase the physical separation of employees
  • Time – everyone knows arranging meetings with all important stakeholders can be difficult
  • Attention – everyone in the world can generate ideas, but can they generate ideas at 10:30 on tuesday the 4th of August?  Forcing ideas into a tiny window can be troublesome (although admittedly pressure sometimes helps)

The following tools (with examples) have promise, keep reading at the end for some good general tips for electronic idea generation (ideation in innovation parlance).


Everyone has come across mindmapping at some point.  A mindmap provides a simple way to develop a hierarchy of items around a common theme, and can be successfully used to generate a bunch of ideas quickly.  Remote collaboration for mind maps is something that’s popped up in the web2.0 revolution a few years back and makes mind maps a great collaboration tool.  I’ve personally used the online tool mindmeister pretty successfully (they even have a few templates for SWOT generation and the like), although mindjet has recently added online functionality (it’s a little pricey though).

When using mindmapping for ideas, make sure you have your scope defined (or visibly open ended) and summarised in the core of the map (the center element).  If you want some structure around ideas, remember to insert a blank tree, and an example tree.  Mindmeister allows for notes to be attached to nodes and the like, which will make describing your map easier.


A jamming “platform” provides an online mechanism for individuals (usually invited, but there are community and open models) to create ideas, comment and tag ideas and vote on ideas (usually using some form of “up” or “down” voting, like digg), plus a back office suite for managing stats, keeping up with participants etc. This has been used for great effect by IBM for a number of years, running jams with 100’s of thousands of participants (they have a website that talks about their experience).  If configured correctly, an jam is a great ideation tool, which can generate a huge pool of ideas in a reasonable timeframe, although you’ll probably need some help to set up your first one (it hasn’t really hit the b-schools as a mainstream tool)

The main products that I’ve come across are BrightIdea’s Webstorm, which I think is more for the open or community jam, and elguji software’s ideajam.  I’ve only seen a jam using the elguji platform so I can’t vouch for other platforms, but it was very successful.

If you’re in Australia, check out Vulture Street for jam services and running a jam in your organisation.


Microblogging has taken off massively in popularity publically, and is starting to make headway in businesses as well.  Developing ideas with microblogging can be as simple as asking questions (possibly incorporating #hashtags to facilitate gathering stats) and prompting discussion in whatever channel your organisation uses (set one up before your next strategy session).

There are a number of microblogging platforms, but for my money Socialcast is the winner in features for a pure microblogging/activity-stream application (I don’t rate yammer), although a lot of webapps provide some form of activity stream, so you might not want to have too much doubleup in your organisation.  For full fledged options that include wikis and more complete portal services, look at Jive’s offerings or SocialText.

Google Wave

Google wave is a bit of an enigma, dependent on which side of the fence you sit on it’ll either change everything, or die a quiet death.  I personally think it has the potential to change a lot in organisations, but people are having trouble finding a particular use in their organisations that isn’t already covered by other collaborative platforms (gDocs for example).

Using google wave for idea generation is a no-brainer though, they even have a guide that gives some good (albeit short) tips on using it for brainstorming.  I think for best success you need an online moderator/facilitator who will manage the development of a wave, being cognizant of useful questions or frameworks to incorporate in a live wave.

General tips

I think that online collaboration isn’t going to fully supplant face-to-face time in an organisation, but I think that organisations creating new idea generating channels can only be a good thing and they may provide mechanisms to engage employees (and other stakeholders), improve the quality and breadth of ideas, and occasionally break down the internal silos that organisations face.  In general though you need to be careful when using these online tools, as a start I suggest thinking about the following items:

  1. Have a clearly defined purpose, even if that purpose is free form idea generation.  If you need detail, but don’t know where to start consider bootstrapping your ideation process though a couple of phases (step one: what should we ask, step two: ask the question)
  2. Define the ground rules of the discussion.
  3. Define your audience carefully, should it be staff (or a subset), will you include customers, suppliers, or will it be open to the general public
  4. Bank on time to motivate and cajole participation, particularly if this is new for your organisation.  If there are particular individuals who you absolutely need to contribute, spend an appropriate amount of time on them
  5. Just because it’s electronic, doesn’t mean it’s not a conversation, treat it as such
  6. Remember your facilitation skills: ask questions, guide discussion, play roles, summarize, define outcomes.
  7. Be aware of your social capital when asking questions, if you’re the CEO, you’re going to get a lot more attention than an line manager.  If you need more social capital, recruit some sponsors before you start.  (for good discussion on this look at this post from Mitch Joel).
  8. Finally, without putting thought into how you are going to filter, select and collate these ideas (even the rejected ones), you aren’t going to make the most of your efforts and you are going to waste a lot of people’s time and make them unhappy and disengaged for the next time you want ideas.  This is of course one of the key components of innovation management (see here, for good commentary).

Hopefully you find that useful!

Photo from State Library and Archives of Florida (flickr)