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A Little Innovation Inspiration

A brilliant brief profile of managing out of a morass is in a new special issue of Smithsonian magazine, titled America's Young Innovators. One of the 37 people (all under 36) profiled in the magazine is Ramon Gonzalez, who four years ago started the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, a public middle school in New York's South Bronx neighborhood.

The school was created to try to address the needs of kids in a gang-ridden neighborhood.

Gonzalez, the school's principal, started with a goal: for half his students to be at grade level in math and language within five years. That was a big goal: only 12 percent of the kids he started with were at least at grade level in math, and a mere six percent in reading and language arts.

Some other statistics from the article underscore the size of the challenge: 90 percent of the students at the school (there are now 115) qualify for free lunches, 15 percent live in shelters, and 20 percent aren't native English speakers (a total of 40 percent of the kids in this school have special needs).

Despite this, he's closing in on his goals, at least in math â€" 44 percent hit the target level in 2007. Language is more of a challenge â€" only 28 percent made the mark in 2007.

His success comes from both strategy and implementation â€" Gonzalez set up the school as a finance and technology school because he found the members of urban gangs are entrepreneurial, but can't participate in the regular economy, in part because of the automatic 'do not hire' sign companies hang on people with prison records. He also did research on what the middle school aged kids in the neighborhood wanted to learn: how to earn money and how to use computers.

His implementation includes daily technology classes, after-school and Saturday programs to get extra teaching for middle school kids who are still at elementary school reading levels, and an intense personal effort to know the pupils â€" he learns who the kids are, knows their names, learns about their families, and is depicted in the piece as being aggressively caring about them and the teachers at the school, many of whom were Teach for America volunteers in 2003 and have stayed with the school. Gonzalez seems to do a lot of management by walking around, and it seems to be working, making this a good read for managers who need a way forward from a difficult position.

Also in that issue of the magazine:

Those looking for clues to what's coming down the pipe in business should look at the profile of Jon Kleinberg, a computer scientist at Cornell who studies social networks. Kleinberg gives this quote about computers: they "know much more about your behavior than you do."

Kleinberg told Smithsonian we'll see

machines, applications and Web sites become better at responding to users' past behavior and prompting them. Your computer might insist you reply to an important email that's been waiting too long, scold you for procrastinating or, sensing that you're about to leave the office, remind you what's left to do.
Before you go rushing off to get IT to build this feature, or try to find a Web application to download, remember that this opens up the potential for micromanagement on a scale that would impress the villainous Brotherhood in Orwell's 1984. Back in 2003, Kris Pister, the founder of Dust Inc., showed me a graph charting the morning of one of his employees, who had put heat-sensitive RFID chips in his apartment. Kris could tell me, by looking at an activity graph, what time the employee woke up, when he turned on his computer, whether someone else had slept there and what time he had breakfast. That involved a very small step towards what Kleinberg is predicting, and companies will have to think carefully about how to manage information in this way. Even in 2003, delivery truck drivers who worked for BP were very unhappy when the firm put RFID chips in delivery trucks, because they felt spied on, untrusted. There are always ways to hack technologies, and in places with bad morale, workers will be more likely to want to figure them out.

A different trend in information management is highlighted in its profiles of Luis von Ahn, who is using simple games on the computer to get people to collaborate more effectively.

Finally, it was worth noting that a couple of people turning the way we look at the world upside down, and getting useful insights from it. Tagging guru Joshua Schacter is one, of course. But also of note was Jeremi Suri, a historian who links high level organizational policy to low-level behavior, while Amber VanDerwarker, an anthropologist, has studied what ordinary people ate in Olmec society to discern what looks to be a different way for a civilization to emerge.

An innovation brainstorming exercise: take some of the 37 profiles and break down how they devised their innovations, and how their ideas may apply to your workplace.

Michael Fitzgerald

Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.

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