Phillip Smith

What can innovators really learn from Web 2.0?

One of the questions that I've struggled with over the last couple of years is: What systemic changes are necessary to help catalyze innovation around social technology? I came back to this question the other week as the conversation swayed toward the opportunity for progressive organizations -- and social innovators -- to integrate social software, social networks, and the ideas of Web 2.0 into their work. I think for most of us who work in the non-profit technology space, the sparkle is off the Web 2.0 starburst, as we see organizations struggle to fully "get" what this new technology movement is all about.

What I do think is cool about Web 2.0 -- especially when it comes to non-profit organizations and social innovators -- is the operational style (business model if you must). Having a usable, interactive, data-exposing, read/write Web site is, in my opinion, more a function of a new approach to problem solving than a tectonic shift in the way the underlying technology works.

It's not about technology!

I think the difference in approach is similar to what I was getting at when I wrote about moving from entitlement to enterprise. Those on the wrong side of Tim O'Reilly's diagram comparing the old Web 1.0 to the new Web 2.0 were very much like many of today's non-profit organizations -- living with a sense of entitlement, assuming that their entrenched position would stay, well, entrenched. That's why they didn't see companies like Google coming. The same thing is happening with social innovation: social entrepreneurs are starting to change the field of change. Both Google and the new social entrepreneurs approach problems with an enterprising spirit.

Thankfully, no one has a monopoly on the enterprising spirit, and over the last year many of the Web 1.0 crowd have caught-up. With their relationships and access to capital, many are even starting to pull ahead (though, this is most often through acquisition and merger). I think the same shift will need to happen here in Canada. Social entrepreneurs will open up new ways of operating and those modes of operation will find their way into the established organizations that can staff and expand the work at a national, or global, level.

But, coming back to the fundamental concepts that Tim O'Reilly provided for what we know as Web 2.0, the question remains: What are the one or two really important ideas that non-profits, social innovators, and Canadian grant makers should take from this movement? If I had to pick them, they would be:

The perpetual beta

Admitting that a product is never finished, and responding constantly to user feedback over long periods of time, implies that the interventions necessary to do this successfully are operational; and by operational I mean not exclusively project-based (as much of today's work in Canadian non-profits is). The culture of Web 2.0 is epitomized by things like extreme programming and scrum or agile development, which favour short, interconnected, development "sprints" over overly-detailed long-range plans. These new modes of production evolve software organically, leverage bottom-up intelligence, and mitigate the risk associated with complicated plans executed in the traditional top-down style. As an example I always offer up notable examples like Flickr that -- at least for the first year or so -- would roll out new features to users almost weekly (sometimes with fanfare, sometimes with much dismay, but the result is shared experience and learning).

Data is the next Intel Inside

Put plainly, it's not about building the next "killer app," it's about building the next killer API. Or, to be more true to O'Reilly's meaning, it's about leveraging the ambient data that is inherent in any complex system -- perhaps, again, this is what Mark was getting at the other week when he was referring to "organic leverage." The textbook example is Amazon. Amazon collects and harvests the ambient data produced by people who use the Amazon Web site (or, in the case of Alexa, any Web site) to create a unique, hard to re-create, source of data. That data can then be used by Amazon -- for example to deliver highly targeted product suggestions -- or made available to other organizations via a range of Amazon Web Services. Amazon has consistently been able to re-package its own learnings, and data, as new products and services that it can make available to the market.

What would it look like if large, national, social service networks adopted this approach? What if, for example, a national NGO instituted the practice of harvesting their own ambient data and making it available to their regional offices, their local chapters, and even directly to the communities they serve? Or if a collection of poverty reduction organizations and regional anti-poverty networks were able to securely share information via a common standard that, collectively, would help them improve the lives of their constituents?

Five suggestions

Returning once again to my initial question -- What systemic changes are necessary to help catalyze innovation around social technology? -- and reflecting on my own experiences, and research, what factors help lead to successful non-profit technology initiatives, I'm left wondering about what we can take from the Web 2.0 experiment and make our own? If I were to take a quick pass at it, it would probably look like this:

  • Embrace the enterprising spirit (and, by this, I'm not just advocating an earned-revenue strategy!)
  • Move innovation from projects to operations
  • Explore what it would take to be nimble; to be responsive to input from constituents
  • Look inward first -- to what is already working -- and harvest the ambient data
  • Don't dwell on the implementation: use standards and share ambitiously

Have your own take? Please pop a comment in the little box below.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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