The Novelty versus Innovation (Middleware) Economy
I recently heard an amazing interfaith minister whom has a strict background, talk about innovation. She said, "You must have a profound respect and experience with tradition before you can authentically innovate." I LOVE that. It really struck a chord with me in that I've had an almost existential struggle with 'innovation' - meaning, I often look at the world of business that I'm in - digital - and I scratch my head at the almost brainwashed, cult-like reverence that particular word has. It's as if any innovation has to come from "outside the box," or from a quarter that is completely removed from the playing field. And while this sometimes has a tremendous value - the old 'fresh set of eyes' perspective - I'm often dismayed that it has become the standardized M.O. of most organizations. The 'cult of technology' has certainly captured the business world.
I look at things just a bit differently. I believe in the inherent value of craftsmanship. In order to create truly innovative design and works of cabinetry and furniture, the master woodworker has to have a bedrock foundation in tradition. It is from that place of reverence and respect that innovative design transcends the utilitarian and becomes art, and sometimes a new movement or tradition. I think that our current culture and society tends to celebrate innovation as a young person's game and we empower these legions of technology wunderkinds with permission to innovate, while we consistently devalue our own inherent abilities, our own strengths, our own experiences. I mean look at the valuations of some of these technology companies?!?! While they are clearly innovative in their own way - are they truly based in authenticity? Based in a respect and reverence for tradition? Seems to me that Groupon and Snapchat would benefit from a bit of traditional, common sense. That would be innovative! Perhaps 'innovation' is simply a matter of perspective? But if the results of that innovation cannot be viewed as a work of craftsmanship - I wonder if it's just novelty? Perhaps we overvalue novelty?
I am a consultant that specializes in 'innovation.' Ugh. What a quick way to scare-off prospects! But let me be clear - I specialize in bringing together truly innovative individuals and companies that I feel have the approach of craftsmen/craftswomen. We are innovators because we form a consortium of partners that assemble on an as-needed basis to suit the needs of our clients. Each strategic partner has a unique offering and is small and nimble enough so that the level of service comes directly from the CEOs, the founders, the 'craftsmen.' It has been my experience that most digital agencies like to 'whitelabel' outsourced services and solutions in order to provide the client with a 'single point of contact' - when in fact it's usually to provide the illusion that the agency has the appropriate internal resources to do all things - be 'all things to all people.' This isn't meant to bash agencies, more that it's an observation on what should be a more collaborative and transparent economy. Entrepreneurs typically do not like to be 'whitelabeled' as it is a prospect of being marginalized and devalued - a prospect of being commoditized. What do you prefer? Do you prefer being treated like an anonymous vendor or a respected partner?
The social intelligence world and the world of 'Big Data' is an amazingly fertile field of opportunity. Never before have we seen such a vast proliferation of data sources, solutions, and methodologies for realizing strategic advantage of these phenomena. The challenges that I and my partners have witnessed and experienced is that data has become a veritable tsunami that most organizations lack the appropriate resources to tackle. And while Social and Big Data services and solutions abound, the enterprise is stuck in the conundrum of which to choose, which to integrate, which to operationalize. This is where the 'middlemen' come in handy, and by that I mean 'middleware.'
The classic definition of middleware is software that acts as a bridge between an operating system or database and applications, esp. on a network. What I am proposing here is that strategic services and solutions for Social and Big Data can be viewed as middleware, and that this middleware takes many forms. I like to call them "strategic lenses." The result of digital innovation these last couple of decades has been that we see the value of data in new & different forms, through new & different interfaces, in new & different features, in new & entirely different channels, etc. For an agency as well as an enterprise, having the expectation that you can encompass 'all things data' is foolhardy. You have to accept that data has outgrown - and will continue to outgrow your ability to interpret it - in the myriad of forms that it can take on. It's the digital equivalent of snowflakes - no two are alike. No two perspectives on Social and Big Data are alike - nor should they be - nor can they be. The interpretation is unique to the 'data craftsman.'
The Social and Big Data 'middleware middlemen' and 'data craftsmen' are a new breed of entrepreneur and executive. They are highly skilled and experienced digital businessmen and businesswomen that can act as the outsourced, customized intelligence apparatus for organizations that lack the infrastructure and resources necessary to take advantage of Social and Big Data. They are a new breed of 'hired gun' that are the leading edge of what many see as the convergence of the best in the "Big 4" digital agencies and the "Big 5" consulting firms. They are the current representation of the hybrid CIO & CMO (and CEO). Take advantage of them.