Innovation and Problem Solving via Professional Activities

Being active in the IEEE Computer Society can help you and your company solve problems and will increase innovation.

Solving Problems

Sometimes you can just search the web to find the answer to a technical question, Sometimes that is a day wasted, even when you succeed. If you interact with web sites - posting questions, providing answers -- you are starting to build a network of contacts -- but you may not be able to contact them! When you know folks as a result of personal interactions over time -- on the network, and better with occasional face to face interactions -- you can reach out when you have a problem where you don't know the answer. This can work over the cubical wall -- but can also span the globe. Asking someone is a recognition of their knowledge and expertise, and can foster improved relationships (just don't ask them to write your program for you.)

The interaction with a "real" person has many advantages over just looking it up on the web, even if the result is a pointer to the web site that has your answer. The right person may have the answer already (no search required), and you have added one more link in a relationship you both may find useful over time.

"Conversations in the hall" - the informal interactions over lunch, during breaks, after the meeting, etc. may be the most valuable aspect of participation -- and one that does not currently have an analog online (maybe in Second Life - but at meetings you actually know with whom you are interacting.) People come with their ideas, insight, experience and challenges all collected in their heads. These interactions trigger elements of these, whether is "oh, I remember a problem like that" or "this last discussion seems to be related to ..." Just discussing concepts and problems with others forces you to articulate things in ways that may lead to the answers. (It's surprising how many breakthroughs result from articulating the problem to a colleague or friend who may have limited knowledge of the field.)

Increasing Innovation

Eureka moments might occasionally occur while focusing hard on the problem while hunched over your computer terminal -- but they don't make the news. The more popular versions seem to happen in off-moments of distraction -- Archemedes in his bath or Poincaré getting on a bus. But interaction with others is even a more common catalyst. The "back of the napkin" discussion at a coffee shop (Vienna and Zurich were famous for both coffee shops and the innovation that surfaced from these.) Not all of these result in Nobel prizes, or even patents ... but they do yield new approaches that solve real problems.

A working hypothesis is that the potential for a given innovation is inversely proportional to the 'discipline distance' between those involved in the discussion. Coffee shared with a department co-worker in the company cafeteria gets things working. Share coffee with someone in sales, marketing, or even finance, and my guess is you will find critical product improvements. But let's leave your building.

Share coffee with prospective customers and you will find differential advantages. Share coffee with competitors and you will gain insight to the market and the strengths of your own products. Share coffee with a researcher or "non-competitor" and you will get insight on the next generation -- they one that can make or break your company. (I've worked for too many companies that refused to recognize the source of their real competition -- the ones that put them out of business; it rarely is the companies "in your market" -- consider the impact of UNIX and PC's on traditional mainframe and mini-computer companies -- few remain.)

Share coffee with someone in a different discipline and you will find the need for new products, new opportunities, and different ways of thinking. Share coffee with someone from a different country and you will find a whole new perspective on user needs, preferences and where growth will occur. A robust dialog crossing disciplines and national boundaries may just uncover paths of great benefit for humanity.

Please feel free to replace coffee, with tea, beer, etc. (but stay sober, or you will simply have a headache and the vague awareness that you solved the world's problems - but you don't know what it was -- the worst case here is if you actually did solve the world's problems and can't remember it!)