"Two paradoxes are better than one; they may even suggest a solution."
- Edward Teller
Any sufficiently new technology involves the management of paradox. When a truly new and potentially disruptive capability meets existing organizational norms, the results often appear contradictory. Such is the case with social media, which are being integrated into business and society with sometimes paradoxical results.
A few examples: The increased ability to create dynamic social groups has led to online support groups for people with diseases, but also to flash mobs. Video games have become social, reengaging children with peers, but doing so in ways that escalate virtual violence. (By my calculation, people "playing" Call of Duty on X-Box Live annihilate the equivalent of the world's population every week.) Famously, "friends" on Facebook do very unfriendly things. In a more benign example, our solitary pursuits have become social: iPhone versions of the card game solitaire encourage players to compete against their friends (at solitaire!).
Paradox also arises in the use of social media for innovation, a topic of two articles in this issue. In his article, "A Pervasive Model for Participation in Voluntary Forums," Robin Spencer makes one such paradoxical observation: His model, which considers participation in everything from idea challenges to Wikipedia, does not require the notion of "community." Social media need not be social to deliver innovation, just large scale. He also makes clear that, despite attempts to control them, the phenomena are not predictable. Significant qualitative differences result from small quantitative differences in the model's parameters. This result may indicate that efforts to design an emergent phenomenon will be elusive. How do we plan for that?
In their case study, "Crowdsourcing: Leveraging Innovation through Online Idea Competitions," Schweitzer, Buchinger, Gassmann, and Obrist address the business question: is crowdsourcing better than traditional focus groups for generating ideas? They compare the results of side-by-side experiments using focus groups and crowdsourcing to solve the same problem. The results, though only indicative at this point, are provocative. Crowdsourcing methods led to more ideas, more truly new ideas, more implementable ideas, and at a lower cost per idea. This might reflect the paradoxical view that to serve customers better, you should interact with non-customers. It is reflective of Karim Lakhani's observation that breakthrough ideas for solving hard technical problems often come from disciplines far from the original problem. Paradoxically, it may be best to search for answers where we least expect them.
My interview with Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Business at Toronto University, offers another paradox …