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Fostering Innovation part 3: focusing on diffusion

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
 In the introduction to this series I shared my working definition of “innovation,” and in part two I shared observations on Who are the Museum Innovators based on the Alliance’s experience with Innovation Lab for Museums. In that post, I also pointed readers to Everett Rogers’ theories on the diffusion of innovation: how new practices spread from the 2.5% of the population who are the actual innovators, to the 13.5% who are early adopters, and then on to the early and late majorities (each about 34% of the population) and, eventually, the laggards. In this post, I consider where resources can have the biggest impact on innovation overall—what stages of Rogers’ model most susceptible to intervention?
The Alliance has been focusing on fostering innovation per se. —helping create and fund a museum version of EmcArt’s Innovation Lab to find and foster budding innovations through intensive mentoring and facilitation. That has been a rewarding process, but resource-intensive: MetLife’s generous support of the program has funded a total of nine museums in three rounds of the lab.
What if training and mentoring won’t significantly budge the number of organizations that are, themselves, sources of innovation? I doubt Rogers’ 2.5% is a magic figure, but the modest volume of applications for Innovation Lab for Museums (about 30-35 per round) suggests that beating innovators out of the museum brush isn’t easy. Perhaps the diffusion of innovation can be accelerated more efficiently by tackling the next stage in Roger’s model: diffusion to the early adopters. Maybe the most effective way for associations like the Alliance to foster innovation is to focus on increasing the rate at which innovations diffuse through the nonprofit community.
I’ve long joked that bringing “new” ideas to the museum world is relatively easy—things the business sector was doing a decade ago or more often look cool and revolutionary in the nonpo world. We’ve been late to the table in areas ranging from management theory to technology. The use of futures studies/strategic foresight to improve planning is a case in point:
  • Futures studies had its origins in the 1930’s, as the US government looked at how demographic trends might affect society
  • In the 50’s and 60’s, Herman Kahn used scenario-based decision making to explore the potential consequences of nuclear war
  • Industry, particularly energy industries, brought the techniques of futures studies to bear on their own planning and operations. (Shell Oil launched its “Long Term Studies” initiative in 1965.)
  • In the 70’s, the environmental movement embraced systems-based forecasting as a way of envisioning the way man was affecting his environment in unsustainable ways. This decade also saw the founding of related academic programs at the University of Houston, and the University of Hawaii in Manoa.
  • By the 1980’s and beyond, the “trends industry” was mainstream. It had generated its own professional associations (the World Future Society in 1966, the Club of Rome in 1968, the Association of Professional Futurists in 2002), as well as breaking out into popular literature. 
You could argue the 2008 launch of CFM represents a fairly typical lag time for the nonprofit field. Now the American Library Association is developing its own center for the future of libraries—maybe the twenty-teens will be the decade when an “early majority” of nonprofits adopt strategic foresight.
How can we reduce that lag time? Let’s go back to Rogers’ model of diffusion. He postulates that four main elements influence the spread of a new idea: the innovation itself, communication channels, time, and a social system.
The Alliance has been focusing on innovation itself, and on creating communications channels to spread the word: on this blog, in Museum, at the annual meeting and other conferences. In the interest of shortening the third variable (time), what can we do to optimize the last variable—social systems?
I mentioned in part 1 of this series that a great innovation (like the Concorde, or the whole technological & logistics apparatus it took to send men to the moon) won’t catch on unless there is a system to support it—Rogers’ “social system.” I also pointed out that sometimes what look like innovations (like Edison’s first commercial light bulb, or Ford’s Model T) aren’t actually new—they are iterations of technology that has been around for decades, waiting for someone with the ability to create a system capable of scaling the innovation and taking them mainstream.
With that in mind, here are the questions I am working on now, as I watch the innovative projects of our nine Innovation Lab museums unfold:
  • Do the “social systems” needed to support wide adoption of these innovations exist? And if not, what can the Alliance do to help create these support systems—what is the museum equivalent of building airports that can handle the Concorde? The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Re-imaging the Historic House” aims to fundamentally change their approach to engaging the public with historic properties. As part of a larger reexamination of their operations, NTHP is examining what kinds of historic properties are suited to being a house museum, and when other, non-traditional approaches might better achieve their preservation goal. The historic site field has already taken several abortive runs at this thorny problem (see, notably, the Kykyuit II Summit report on the Sustainability of Historic Sites.) What can the Alliance and other museum associations, and funders, and policy makers do to create a social system in which these innovative reforms can actually spread?
  • How can we help promising innovations scale to the point where they are widely adopted because their economic benefits are clearly documented, and their business model replicable? The Mississippi Museum of Art is experimenting with new membership models. What can we do to encourage early adoption of any promising prototypes generated by their project? The Museum of International Folk Art is questioning the traditional boundary between art museums and the commercial art market, forming a strategic alliance with for profit and nonprofit partners in Santa Fe to help the local arts community and the local economy. Can we quantify the effects of their project, and give museums tools to assess how this approach might produce similar results in their own communities?
Your thoughts on these questions most welcome, and as I work out ways the Alliance might tackle these challenges, I will share them, for your comment and input, on this blog.
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