A Great Day for Ideas (#BIF5)

BIF-5 logoI had the great pleasure of attending the first day of the BIF-5 Collaborative Innovation Summit, held in Providence, Rhode Island, by the Business Innovation Factory. That's a lot of jargon for just the names of a conference and its sponsoring organization, but more to the point is the tag line for the event: "A good story can change the world." Those are strong words, but, at its best, the packed Trinity Rep in Providence worked hard to live up to them.

I'm embarrassed that such a strong conference takes place almost in the backyard of MIT Sloan Management Review and I didn't know about it until year five, but "BIF," as the organizers call it, is full of ambition and purpose. Like similar conferences TED and PopTech, BIF offers what it hopes are world-changing ideas. But, unlike TED and PopTech, which celebrate a wide variety of disciplines and are as intent on entertaining as educating, BIF is all business.

Saul KaplanIt's a wide definition of business knowledge. Last week in this spot, I mused on leadership lessons from unlikely places. BIF was all about inspiration from unlikely places, with reports from the frontlines of freelance diplomacy and someone whose job it is to figure out what would happen if a pirate fought a knight. But more than unexpected sources, BIF was about unexpected attitude. Late in the first day of the conference, Saul Kaplan, the event's "founder and chief catalyst," said "innovation requires a vulnerability most people are not comfortable with." Like many good stories, the ones told on the stage of BIF were ones in which the principals revealed their vulnerabilities and then revealed what they learned from them.

The whole day was filmed. These talks will find their way onto the net and we'll point to them. For now, here are a handful of the highlights from a long, deep day:

  • The New York Times recently argued that the term "curator" is being overused, but Museum of Modern Arts senior curator Paola Antonelli made a compelling case for curating, in its widest sense, as the activity in which all knowledge workers will engage. "Curating is no more than sifting," she said, "sifting, so people can organize information in the best way."
  • Harvard Berkman's Ethan Zuckerman, introduced as "the geek's geek," talked about building cultural bridges, with examples ranging from Paul Simon's Graceland to the videogame World of Warcraft, and used a not-new term that the business thinkers in the room marvelled over: "xenophilia."
  • Author Don Tapscott gave a variation of his usual talk about digital natives, but added a telling wrinkle. He told of his son building a Facebook group for one of his books and the self-organizing community quickly growing and feeling its oats. One member of that Facebook group asked pointedly, "And how exactly will Mr. Tapscott be contributing to our community?" It was a trenchant note regarding how much ownership community members can feel.
  • Helmut Traitler, vice president of innovation partnerships at Nestle, discussed the nuts and bolts of managing open innovation projects. Some companies "give out problems in a disguised way," he said, "but you have to give out openly to get back more."
  • Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, talked about fixing MBA education so it no longer produces, as The Economist calls them, "jargon-spewing economic vandals." He spoke in detail about moving the MBA curriculum from shallow to deep, narrow to broad, static to dynamic. Similarly, ex-MITer John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, talked about how fundamental "hand-based" knowledge is being lost as part of our transition to new technologies and new models.

In a small, packed room, it felt like these notables were, with minimal dressing, simply sharing what they were thinking about lately and telling stories that illuminated their ideas. Early in the day, Kaplan talked about what everyone seems to talk about these days: Twitter. He talked glowingly about its applicability to sharing ideas early on. "It lets you get stuff off white board and on to the ground," he said. A good conference can do that, too.

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