in Leadership

An example of innovation being built upon standardization.

Illuminated manuscript

I’ve been reading Reinventing Knowledge: from Alexandria to the Internet over the last couple of days. It takes an interesting approach, looking at intellectual history through institutions rather than individuals: The Library, The Monastery, The University, The Republic of Letters, The Disciplines, The Laboratory.

After I mentioned my belief that innovation is (generally) built upon standardization in a blog post about the Guardian Innovation in Education event, some people asked me for examples. I’m happy to say the book provided one in the shape of the medieval monastery:

By no means the only rule for monasteries, nor the oldest, nor the most innovative, [The Benedictine Rule] nevertheless achieved authoritative status on acount of its simple practicality and realistic expectations of the average monk’s capacity for ascetic discipline. Crafted for spiritual use, tested by time and repetition, and propagated by anonymous scribes, it bears a certain resemblance to the Christian scriptures themselves. Adhering to such a text enabled communities of monks to survive and thrive desipte the personal quirks and transient lifespans of individual members. In Benedict’s ideals and their evelopment in practice we see how monastic time played upon cycles of days, weeks, and years, endlessly repeating, to ensure the survival and stability of the monastery and of learning itself. (p.56-7)

The author continues a couple of pages later:

The genius of the Rule lay in the recognition that monks needed a specific regimen to make this spiritual goal an attainable reality. It was one thing to declare the entirety of one’s life, every moment, was to be devoted to God, another to know precisely what to do during all the minutes that followed sunrise, day after day. (p.59)

We do, of course, have to be careful. As Cathy Davidson points out in her must-read book for educators Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, your attention has to be on the right thing to start off with. Otherwise, you get what Clayton Christensen calls ‘custodial schooling’ with seat time trumping a focus upon learning gains.

The idea of a platform for innovation, I think, is sound. It doesn’t really matter what the socially-negotiated/accepted base consists of, just so long as there is one to build upon. The best examples I’ve seen are a school where there was a workflow for everything, and my current employers where we have a team-constructed wiki that serves as a knowledge repository.

Image CC BY bazylek100