Last July I received an invitation from Annenberg’s Dean, Ernest Wilson to be its first Innovator in Residence. This is part of a program Dean Wilson is launching to bring people to Annenberg from different fields, who have real-world, practical understanding of the impacts of disruptive innovations, - because they have lived through it, as I have in IBM. His letter said:
“ . . . The communications and media sectors are in a state of great turmoil. Over a relatively short period of time, technological progress has altered everything from the media for information delivery to the revenue sources for the news, media and public relations business. At this moment, there is a remarkable confluence of social, economic and technological change - all of which affect vital information flows in our democracy.”
“Rather than seeing these changes as threats, I am encouraging my team to view them as unique opportunities to lead and contribute to innovative thinking and action in the communication field. The Annenberg School is expected to play a major role in shaping this future: we need to be able to step up to meet the expectations, offering bold and creative solutions for the communications and media industries, and a meaningful education for our students.”Dean Wilson’s invitation letter was very eloquent, but frankly, given my strong interest in the subject, he had me at “Dear Irving.”
Communications and related activities have been central to much of what I have done over the past twenty years. At IBM, while I am undoubtedly a technologist and have been most closely associated with our technical communities, I have worked so closely with IBM’s communications and marketing organization that for all intents and purposes I am an honorary member of their community as well.
Partly this has been because over this period, I was very involved in organizing emerging business opportunities such as parallel supercomputing, the Internet and e-business and Linux. Communications are essential to introducing any disruptive technology or launching any new business – including winning over the people of your own organization, who will often be your most skeptical audience. And partly it has been due to the specific nature of the Internet revolution, - the Internet being in essence an incredibly disruptive communications innovation. Then there is my relatively recent appreciation for blogging and writing. Blogging has sensitized me even more to the power and opportunities of communications in the Internet age.I was thus very excited when I got Dean Wilson’s invitation, and I quickly I e-mailed and called in my acceptance. I was delighted to be given the opportunity to spend a week in a place where communications is center-stage and I would be able to talk to its faculty and students, and learn as much as possible what they do and where the field is heading. For several years now I have been involved with schools of engineering and management at MIT, Imperial College and other universities. While they all touch on communications in various ways, it is peripheral to their main missions.
So, what did I learn in my week at Annenberg? Let me try to give my overall first impressions. Not surprisingly, I am looking at everything they are doing through the lenses I am most comfortable with: disruptive technologies; innovation and entrepreneurship; and complex organizational systems. I am not at all a communications professional, but a technologist looking at the field of communications.How is communications evolving to embrace the Internet and other digital technologies and thus evolving into a more 21st century discipline, as is the case with so many fields? New technologies are rapidly changing the fundamentals of communications - e.g., access to huge amounts of information, ubiquitous mobile devices, social networks, highly visual interfaces. Each such new capability is now a part of the tools that every communications professional should be familiar and comfortable with, especially graduating students entering the workplace.
But studying new communications technologies and capabilities is not enough. The technologies are disrupting industry after industry, and the more communications intensive the industry, the more they feel the havoc. Newspapers, broadcasting networks and media companies in general are at the center of this storm. New companies have already been emerging based on these new, innovative technologies, and many more will likely follow. Existing companies need to leverage these capabilities to survive and move into the future. As with anything new and disruptive, lots of experimentation, prototyping, analysis and research is required to figure out which of these new ideas will work best.
Where will these new centers of communications innovation arise? In classic technology-based disciplines, such as engineering, universities have become major centers of innovation, and the most successful ones have created whole innovation ecosystems around them. Silicon Valley and the Boston area are the most prominent such innovation ecosystems, centered around Stanford and MIT respectively. But, as technologies are transforming more and more services-based industries outside the traditional scope of engineering schools, different kinds of university departments will find themselves focusing on how disruptive technologies and innovations are transforming the industries they study and for which they train students.
For communications-based industries, this is the role that USC Annenberg and similar schools hope to fill. They need to work closely with experts in technology and business. But, in the end, technology-based journalism has to be great journalism; technology-based public relations has to be great public relations; and technology-based media companies have to be great media companies attracting lots of users and viewers. The key focus has to be on communications, not on technology or business.As I talked to faculty and students at the Annenberg school, I heard about a number of such fascinating and potentially transformative projects. For example, I heard about an initiative to leverage virtual world capabilities to create a highly visual, immersive experience for delivering the news. A reporter in Kabul may take his or her audience on a tour of Kabul in real time, perhaps interacting with the audience and answering their questions, perhaps letting the audience talk directly to people in Kabul.
Such highly visual experiences are now commonplace in games and animated films, but these are mostly designed for entertainment, not to deliver and emotionally feel real-world news in non-traditional, innovative ways. The real breakthroughs here will be to marry these highly visual, interactive, immersive capabilities with serious journalism and a new, more experiential way of delivering the news.Another very interesting project I heard about from graduate students at Annenberg is the use of cell phones and mobile devices to collect oral stories from people in poor and working class communities. While social media are being used by more and more people, anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that their users tend be relatively well educated and well off economically. This project is experimenting with how to design a social media site for less well off and less well educated communities. They are using cell phones to capture and share oral stories, because cell phones are much more ubiquitous in poorer communities than laptops, and oral stories are better suited for cell phones than writing.
I came across a number of other interesting communications and media projects. I could sense that an innovation and entrepreneurial culture is beginning to take hold at USC Annenberg. The new ideas they come up with need to be further prototyped in a kind of design studio, so you can actually conduct experiments with real users. A major next step will be to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem around the school, so the ideas they come up with will find their way into the marketplace through both new and existing companies. This won’t be easy, and much work remains to be done, but I came away from my week at USC Annenberg with the feeling that the school is well on its way to making it happen.