posted 15 May 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 8
The knowledge: Ron Dvir
Ron Dvir, founder, Innovation Ecology, Israel, is a whirling dervish, flying wildly among places, stories and events.
Sometimes brilliant minds move so rapidly mere mortals can’t download fast enough. But with Ron Dvir, patterns gradually appear – like a double helix – a twisting but congruent spiral revealing discoveries and personal ?ah-has’ – personal moments entwined and linked as concepts.
He started his work life as a carpenter, creating fine furniture of Finnish pinewood and American maple. Then he planned logistical systems as a materials handling engineer, moved into total quality management (TQM), and then ever deeper into the world of intangibles – knowledge, innovation and future management.
“But, wait...,” he interrupts himself. “... is the ‘future’ really intangible? In some senses, I realise, it is very tangible, present and urgent.”
Following this logic, Dvir focuses a significant part of his work on the creation of future centres and other types of future-oriented working environments. He is a master of ah-has, working today as an architect of innovation systems and future centers.
“Unlike an architect of buildings, the architecture I work with is composed of both tangible aspects such as the physical appearance of the innovative place, and intangible aspects such as ‘futurising’ processes and tools, virtual innovation catalysing platforms, cultural issues, business concepts and organisational constellations,” he says. “I love to conceptualise such centres, plan them, integrate so many factors, and get them up and running. This gives me my deepest satisfaction.”
Future centres, he explains, are facilitated working environments which help organisations prepare for the future in a proactive, collaborative and systematic way. With colleagues in this field from 12 European organisations, he recently explored some 30 future centres in the framework of a large research project; they are now editing a book about these places. “We discovered that while each is unique, each shares a large number of common characteristics. For example, in all of them, the link among past, present and future is emphasised and apparent. All of them trigger the open discussion of the largest challenges and questions of the mother organisation – usually using and deliberately inviting many perspectives,” says Dvir.
“I first heard about the future centre concept from Leif Edvinsson, who created the first one in 1996 in
KM and IC exchanges
But let’s go back. In the mid 90s Dvir worked at a large telecom company, which was successful and led the market in several technologies. However, as a TQM person he was fascinated not only with the success but also with the potentially huge savings.
“Many engineers excelled in the art of re-inventing the wheel because great sources of internal expertise were hidden to those who needed it, mistakes in core processes were wasted because no one bothered to learn – seriously, I mean – from others.” Dvir started a PhD research about reuse of engineering information.
Sitting at the library of
In parallel, Dvir still kept one foot in the quality management discipline, and gradually felt unrest in both his professional communities – knowledge management (KM) and TQM. His colleagues talked with him about frustrations, limited impact, conceptual confusion. In a way, the TQM community was an aging one and the KM community was in its infancy, making an effort but failing to break the barriers that stood in the way of truly changing the way organisations work.
“Ah-ha, I thought. Perhaps these disciplines, each with significant strengthens and weaknesses, can help each other, complement one another. I initiated several company and national level efforts towards this end, and also changed the subject of my PhD research to focus on the exchanges and flows of intellectual capital between professional communities.”
Power of visualisation
Ron found it was not easy to communicate the ideas of KM to the telecom marketing champions, nor to brilliant software engineers. “Desperately, I asked help from my father, who is a landscape architect and a gifted artist. Based on my abstract explanations, he drew a lively illustration of the company’s ‘knowledge highway’. And it worked. Then, for years, I was back to the ordinary textual messages and engineered flowcharts and tables.
“Years later I participated in a boring, really dry scientific meeting in
And indeed, books, posters, research proposals, business concepts, workshops and his website – are all are full of colors, illustrations, old and new artwork.
Dvir is also fascinated with ‘the wisdom of crowds’, a term he borrowed from the book The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.
“When I work with large groups, I am always surprised,” he says. “I am happily shocked to discover, again and again, that putting a good question to a group of good people will yield fascinating results, many times better than those of a super-creative individual. This happened to me last week. I run a graduate level university course called ‘the role of the ?chief knowledge officer’. I gave my students several metaphors associated with this role, including a cartographer, a strategist and an architect. One week later, in response to my question, I found in the course forum 40 new metaphors, all relevant, all well explained. Ah-ha, the wisdom of crowds again came to mind. The group was able to come with a much richer definition of the role, definition and characteristics of the CKO.”
Ron worked four years as a CKO. Gradually, he started to realise where the real organisational costs are hidden. “We talked about and focused efforts on enhancing the reuse capabilities of the company, helping it to know better what it knows. But conversations with colleagues from the global KM community hinted that perhaps we were looking in the wrong places. During one late dinner, Leif Edvinsson suggested that the cost of (missed) opportunities is much more significant. Ah-ha, again. So I started to focus more on innovation, the mastery of creating good ideas, turning them into something valuable.”
Knowledge to innovation ecology
Ron recalls how he arrived at the innovation ecology concept. As he grew up in a house of a landscape architect, he studied advanced ecological concepts. Already in the 60s at the University of California, he heard a lot about eco-systems. But it was not until he was walking one day in the corridor of a hi-tech company he visited that he linked those ideas to his work.
“There were long corridors, white walls, identical sterile offices, endless meetings, endless hours, unhappy engineers. I remembered an old documentary I saw about the perfect opposite – the offices of IDEO, a design firm in California. It was apparent – from the film as well as from the list of products designed by IDEO – that this company was innovative. Ah-ha. One can plan an environment where innovation can flourish.
“So I decided to explore more in research funded by the European Community. We followed a framework of 12 factors that can be planned and nourished. Among them were ‘time space’, ‘physical space’, ‘technological space’,’cultural space’ and ‘contact space’. The work was inspired by the concept of ?knowledge ecology’ by George Por, as well as the ideas of other friends – Leif Edvinsson on ?joy zones’, Debra Amidon’s books on the critical success factors of knowledge innovation and Arian Ward’s work on the frontiers of advanced working environments.”
Libraries are another of Dvir’s passions. He visited his local library one day, and describes a sad experience. “An almost empty place,” he recalls, “lifeless, and used only to consume knowledge.”
But, from history lessons, he remembered the story of the ancient Alexandria library, which was an incubator for new ideas, a safe place for the greatest thinkers of those times to play with risky paradigm-breaking concepts and indeed create a large proportion of the ancient world’s scientific knowledge. Bingo, ah-ha.
“Why can’t we upgrade existing urban institutions into places where innovation happens, knowledge is created, new ideas become prototypes. Libraries, museums, the local universities, maybe even the local café – these are all potential ‘innovation engines’. Today, when I talk with clients on establishing an innovation center, I invite them—before planning new places – to explore existing ones. This is a faster strategy, more accessible, more sustainable and there is another advantage – it adds a dimension, linking past, present and future.”
But now, Ron thinks past innovation labs located in static buildings to nomadic solutions. He asks, “What if we could set up nomadic innovation centers, temporary ones that are ever changing?”
He gives an example: “I am a member of the international future centres community. We meet every year to exchange experiences and create new approaches to future centres and innovation laboratories. I think those annual three-day meetings can be seen as nomadic innovation labs.”
Ah-ha! Conferences as nomadic innovation labs? Sounds more dynamic than lectures. What will Dvir think of next? If you’re looking for innovative ideas, try to follow this fellow if you can. There he goes now...
Ron Dvir is principal, Innovation Ecology, Israel. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org