Monday, December 17, 2007

Embracing Innovation

I'm almost 46 years old and am in the prime of my capacity to adapt to mental and physical change. I crave innovation just as I crave my weekend time climbing ice and scaling mountains. However, I know that my mental and physical capacity to embrace change are likely to diminish over time.

My Grandmother (passed away in the 1990's) spent her youth learning the Palmer method of perfect handwriting. When I learned to type in 6th grade and began typing all my correspondence, she could not embrace the notion that cursive handwriting was an anachronism.

As a college student, I had the privilege of living with Dr. Frederick Terman, former Provost of Stanford University and the person who brought Bill Hewlett/David Packard together in the 1930's. Dr. Terman was known for his foundational work in radio engineering, especially the creation of novel amplifier circuits. One night in the early 1980's, I brought Dr. Terman an integrated circuit that cost under $1 dollar and did the work of his most complex radio engineering designs in a single device smaller than a dime. I proudly explained that his foundational work made this integrated circuit possible. His response was that he could not understand the technology inside the device and thus he had no interest in it.

Recently, in her Nobel acceptance speech, Doris Lessing explained that the Internet is destroying creativity and intelligence because it enables anyone to be a publisher and it removes rigorous training in the history of literature as a barrier entry to authorship. Although I have the greatest respect for anyone who earns a Nobel prize, these statements reminded me of my conversation with Dr. Terman. Just because the new forms of social networking, blogging, wikis, and instant messaging are different than previous forms of scholarship does not mean they are inherently flawed. In the past, I would have not shared my experiences as CIO with everyone because the barriers to writing a book about it were too great. Now, anyone can benefit from my decade of successes and failures as a CIO for free, anytime, anywhere. In a sense, the internet has democratized access to knowledge.

My committment to my staff is that if I ever become the rate limiting step in adoption of new technologies, then it will be time for me to go. In the meantime, bring on the AJAX, the Continuous Data Replication, Host-based Intrusion Protection and all the new acronyms that cross my desk every day. I may not immediately understand every new technology, but I look forward to being a student, learning about the latest innovations, for life.


jessica lipnack said...

John, have you read Doris Lessing's Nobel acceptance speech? I'm guessing you haven't. It's a profound celebration and sometimes elegy for the book. There is merely a paragraph about the Internet and, to my mind, a very dedicated, long-term "user," accurate. Not to pick two fights but I also question your assumption that one's mental acumen declines with age. Again, I refer you to Ms. Lessing or, perhaps a bit closer to your concerns, Mr. Drucker, who was working on three books when he died at 96.
--jessica lipnack

JGF said...

Well said John, though I had to smile at the "weekend ice climbing" comment. It does add to your extreme reputation. Hang gliding in the summer perhaps?

Jessica, there may exist a human who's mental acumen does not decline with age. I've not met anyone like that however, and I did meet Richard Feynman.

An extreme example may help. I'm a reasonably clever sort, but I don't have the brain power Isaac Newton or even Linus Pauling had. They both declined in their dotage.

In some positions, like John Halamka's, productivity peaks around the mid to late forties. Alas, that's largely because our 'wisdom' (painful experience) and knowledge base offset our degrading neural networks. The balance shifts.

We too shall pass. We can only hope there comes a day when instead of saying "I'm not interested" we can say "That's cool, even if I can no longer understand it."

jessica lipnack said...

Mmmm, John G, I'm not prone to prolong comments replying to comments but I, for one, have met many many artists, scientists, executives, writers, and, yes, IT people who only improve with age. If John H, at 46, is at his peak, he's going to be a pretty unhappy man 10 years from now, when he's in decline (viz. his ancient CEO, who one would be hard pressed to compete with intelligence-wise). Or heaven forfend, how will John feel at, ahem, 60? I guess I'm already over the hill in your eyes, even if I've never felt more productive, creative, passionate, and, frankly, in better shape physically.

John Halamka said...

Great comments!

I did not mean to imply that all folks have a decrease in mental capacity with age, my reflection was that the ability to adapt to quantum change is more challenging. Even the sharpest folks I deal with find that change can be hard.

I'll read the full text of her speech. I only saw the "Cliff Notes" version previously.

Medical Quack said...

Well said and wished there were more with the same or similar thought processes in health care, but eventually they will get there.

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts ... after reading the post - the main reaction I had to the comments of the previous generation of experts about the new technologies was the difference between learning the subject (i.e. rigorous study of handwriting) vs. "learning to learn, continuously."

Just as many good computer programmers can easily pick up a new computer language with relative ease, it is clear that in the coming years we need to get very good at learning and adapting to new things quickly.

As I was growing up, I knew a handful of older folks who kept up with technologies pace. Though keeping up meant drooling over 386 processors and DOS memory hacks, it is interesting to me to reflect on how some people just are lifelong learners, and others are stuck in their world views of how things are to be done.

EricP said...

Innovation is what keeps me sane and embracing it is what keeps me proud of my day-to-day.

I wish I could better teach my staff this type of hunger for innovation. I guess the "what's in it for me" type of rational also needs to apply...

Thinking out loud here...
Nice post.