Beyond the Field of Dreams

Large organizations, including government agencies, universities, and companies, often develop new products and services for which the demand seems quite low. These mystery launches recall the mantra popularized by the 1989 film “Fields of Dreams”: “if we build it, they will come.”

Even in the fantasy world of the movie, it was clear that building a baseball field in a cornfield was a very risky, if not foolish, move. Many companies have discovered the hard way that market acceptance comes only if the new product is of such singular and obvious value that there can be no doubt about the value premise. When the value of the product must be explained, it may never catch on.
Innovation is even riskier when success depends on the collaboration of many organizations, such as in our attempts to improve information sharing across disciplines and jurisdictions of government. The imposition of a solution that will require changing the behavior of people who don’t buy into the change is likely to fail.  In fact, adoption and acceptance of a solution demand that the stakeholders feel they have participated in, at least indirectly, the solution’s design.
I recently had the privilege of attending a provocative conference sponsored by the Stewards of Change and Johns Hopkins University dealing with interoperability in the health and human services world.  Stephanie Reel, Vice Provost for Information Technology and CIO for Johns Hopkins University, noted that the mindset of the university’s faculty toward new offerings was best expressed by that same catchphrase, “if we build it, they will come.” Many times, the university found that “they” did not come. Yet Johns Hopkins willingly took this risk time after time.
Then faculty members proposed a powerful new mindset: “if we build it together, they are already here.” Under this approach to innovation, stakeholders openly engage in defining requirements and identifying functions, so that the resulting system has been accepted even before it is built.

With the risk of rejection gone, the ultimate design is much more likely to be successful in serving its constituents. This strikingly simple and elegant new way of approaching problem-solving and productivity improvement is the right way to build an effective governance structure to implement an automated system for information sharing. By considering stakeholders’ needs and incorporating their input, we are “building it together, so they are already here.”

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