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Conspiracy Against Innovation

John Simkin

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In the early 1980s I was a member of a publishing cooperative run by teachers. At the time we were pioneering a new way of teaching history. We were contacted by the BBC as they wanted our advice on a new series of television programmes for schools. The producer argued that this new series reflected the ideas that we were promoting in our teaching materials. Anyway, this producer came down to my house one Monday night to show us what they were up to. It soon became clear that the BBC had not grasped the concept we had been developing and we told this woman that these television programmes would not work in the classroom. It then became clear that this producer was not really interested in our views at all. All she wanted us to say was that this series was just what teachers had been waiting for. The series came out and received favourable reviews in the press and actually won some sort of award for innovation (to be fair it was very different from anything else that had been produced by the BBC for schools). However, the programmes were virtually unusable in the classroom. Later, I discovered that the BBC had to consult with teachers before bringing out new programmes. The problem was that they were free to completely ignore this advice, therefore, making the consultation process worthless.

Later I worked as a consultant on the use of technology in education for both the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. I found it a very frustrating experience. They listened to my advice and I even found one man at the Telegraph to believe in what I had to say. However, he was unable to convince those at the very top of the organisation. My experience at the Guardian was even more frustrating. My advice was not compatible with their “business plan” and I never had any real impact on the production of educational web materials. In both cases they paid good money for advice they never made use of. I then went away and carried out my ideas on my own website. That of course is the great advantage of the internet.

History shows that large media organizations find it virtually impossible to innovate. There is a psychological reason for this. People in large organisations are really only interested in reproducing previously successful projects. Virtually all innovation comes from new and small organizations. These ideas, when successful, are eventually imitated by the large organizations such as the BBC. However, as in the example I gave earlier, they rarely understand what they are doing and this usually fails dismally.

The other problem is that the small organization that starts of with good ideas grows into large organizations with an obsession in reproducing its success. It therefore becomes blind to real innovation. Bill Gates talked about this problem in the early days of Microsoft. He claimed he would solve it by buying up innovative companies and giving them complete freedom within the organization.

The founders of Google have also talked about this problem and have tried to overcome it by giving its employees free time to work on new projects. It will be interesting to see if this experiment works. All large companies develop what I would call the Stalin model of organization. What is needed is the Trotsky model of “permanent revolution”. However, it should be pointed out, Stalin died in bed whereas Trotsky ended up with an ice-pick in his head.

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I agree with a lot of what you say, John, but would also add "fear" as a motivator. If you do something no-one's tried before and it's successful, you're a real hero, but if it fails, you could get the blame for recklessness. The safe course is the unadventurous one. I've seen this a lot during a l-o-n-g career in education. Educational administrators are generally very, very wary of new ideas. If you DO something, some parent may not like it and complain. So, the safest option is to do nothing at all so that no one is upset by it!

Over recent years, we have taken fewer and fewer trips out of school, because if we're out of school "something might go wrong", so it's obviously much "better" to keep all the students sat at their desks in the classroom....

However, how is this a "conspiracy" rather than institutional cowardice?

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