Frederick Taylor, DEC, and Zynga: how does “idea fuel” filter to the top of perpetual beta organisations?

I broke bread with the speakers after the Dublin Web Summit on Friday (see my coverage of the Summit for Wired UK), and sat opposite Marcus Segal, Zynga’s Chief Operating Officer for Games. Segal is faced with a hell of a problem: Zynga is growing like a super nova, and the model it uses relies on trying out new ideas all the time. It needs idea fuel.

Zynga needs a good flow of idea fuel particularly badly because it embraces the “perpetual beta” approach, keeping its products in a stage of change and development at all time and testing new ideas on a weekly basis. (on perpetual beta – see chap. 10 of  A history of the Internet and the digital future). So the question is, when you have a big, rapidly growing company, how do you get the brain juice to flow upward from all levels of staff – and how do you filter the quality?

When Frederick Taylor, the father of management consulting wrote The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911 he argued that apprenticeships and the irregular word of mouth process by which workmen in the pre-industrial age learned their trades created an unmanageable workforce of artisans. Managers, incapable of understanding the full breadth of individual skills within their workforce, were forced to rely on the initiative and experience of the workers. They were forced to use special incentives such as improved conditions to gain their workers’ goodwill. The answer, Taylor suggested, was the standardization and centralization of the accumulated lore that had been passed down from generations of apprentice workmen. Best practice studies could codify all workers’ knowledge into standardized procedures. Personal initiative would then become immaterial and the artisan workforce would simply become directed labor. White–collar managers, now fully versed in the procedures for every task, would now instruct and supervise the work force in every specific task.

Taylor’s model became outmoded by the 1970s as lower levels of management within organizations were given increasing levels of responsibility. The rise of the digital economy accelerated this trend, moving from mass factory labour to a workforce of digital artisans. Where as Taylor’s industrial management sought to minimize deviation from the norm, web businesses capitalize on the distinctive experience and quirks of their digital artisans, pushing responsibility and opportunity outward rather than keeping it in a central hierarchy. In short, management went centrifugal. Responsibility was distributed within management structures a little bit more like Paul Baran’s  distributed network diagram showed distribution of control.

This centrifugal approach to engineering talent derives from the hacker “nerd norms” of strict meritocracy, disregard for conventional hierarchy, and personal initiative that grew out of the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics in the 1960s and 70s. These nerd norms were transferred to the private sector by way of the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) which spun off from the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in 1957. Employees at DEC were given leeway to “do the right thing” and pursue approaches as they saw fit even if their managers disagreed. “Do the right thing” was an official principle at DEC, not a suggestion. The lowest unit of effective creativity within an organization became the individual employee, not the unit, or the division.

Yet, what works with skilled engineers might not necessarily work for others. Organizations hungry for idea fuel may struggle to apply this sort of principle across the entire organization. There are two examples in which the US government attempted to harness the idea fuel of the nation. During World War 1 the US Naval Consulting Board tried to harness the ideas of the American public to help the war effort. Out of the 110,000 proposals submitted all but 110 were discarded as worthless. Only one was implemented. Opening the idea pipe to so wide an population was hit and miss operation. In World War 2 the National Inventors’ Council, ‘a clearing house for America’s inventive genius’, reviewed inventions from the public that could assist the war effort. It received over 100,000 suggestions, and is distinguished, among other things, as being one of the many organizations and businesses that rejected the concept of the photocopier.

But in one startling example, two ideas of Hugo Korn, a sixteen year old from Tuley High School in Chicago were apparently given practical consideration. One was a detector to be used ‘in airplanes to spot factories in enemy country by infrared radiation’. The other was ‘an aerial camera which would be used in bad weather conditions’.

So it may be possible. Social networking tools that operate at enterprise level, as Datahug does externally and Salesforce’s Chatter does internally, can help connect the dots and open new channels of communication. But success is probably a cultural issue. Does your business believe, as the MIT hackers and as DEC did, that a low ranking person with a smart idea should be allowed to test it – even if the hierarchy says no? And if it does, how does this level of bottom up initiative work when taken out of the Bazaar and put into the Cathedral?
(note: If you didn’t get that last reference then The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond is a must).

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