Corporate Learning and Creativity

Imagine you’re the CEO and your goal is to make your organization more innovative.  Where would you start?  No doubt, you would start with your people.  And the part of the organization responsible for your staff’s professional growth and development is human resources.  “Human resources” gets a bad rap; in the Dilbert comic strip, the evil Catbert symbolizes the senseless bureaucracy too often associated with the human resources department.  But thriving, innovative companies are learning organizations.  Learning organizations provide constant opportunities for everyone to reach their fullest creative potential.

I touched down in the human resources world last week, when I gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of the eLearning Guild.  (Listen to a pre-conference audio interview.)  The members of the Guild are the people that design web-based learning applications for corporate training, certification, licensing, legal guidelines…we’ve all worked through at least one such on-line application.  Most of them are far from innovative–you’re presented with a bunch of information, then afterwards you’re tested with multiple choice, true-false items.  This is simple information delivery, and all the research shows that this sort of learning does not result in creative employees.

So, in my talk, I drew from the latest research in both the innovation process and in the learning sciences.  This research gives us a pretty good idea of how to design learning environments that foster creative learning, rather than simple memorization of facts.  The problem is that this research is just now starting to emerge from university research labs, and most people “down in the trenches” haven’t encountered it yet.

But instructional designers in HR departments can’t make the transformation to innovative learning all by themselves.  The transformation has to be initiated by senior management, and they have to push hard to create a culture of organizational learning, and of innovation.  Only with top management support can an HR department shift to designing innovative learning applications that do more than simply deliver information.

I was extremely impressed by the knowledge and talent of the professionals in attendance at this event.  They’re exploring some truly exciting and innovative technologies: immersive learning simulations, multi-player online games, even using cell phones to deliver on-demand instruction.  Keep your eye on this sector; you’re going to see dramatic changes in the next three to five years.

Protecting Proprietary Secrets Can Inhibit Creativity

I’ve just read an interesting academic paper by Pamela J. Hinds at Stanford.  It’s an experimental study that seems to show that if your company asks you to protect proprietary information, you might end up being less creative.

She took 69 undergraduates and asked them to imagine they worked for a company and that their goal was to “generate novel and marketable ideas for consumer-oriented information appliances” (like a toaster with a computer screen on it).  Theiy were told they’d then share their ideas with a task force containing people from many companies.  The best ideas would get a $25 bonus payment.  Before starting the task, she gave each of them a packet with eleven pieces of information about information appliances.

Then, she split them into two groups.  Half of the students were told that of the eleven pieces of information, four of them were proprietary and could not be used in the final suggestion–because, after all, that would be shared with the task force and other companies would have people on the task force.  The other half of the students were told all the information was public and they were allowed to use all eleven pieces of information.

Of the proprietary students, the average number of ideas they generated was 10.18, and of the
public students, the average was 7.54.  That seems to suggest that working with proprietary information makes you have fewer ideas.

Prof. Hinds then had all of the ideas rated for novelty and marketability by a product design engineer, on a scale of 1 to 5.  The average creativity rating of the proprietary students’ ideas was 3.54, and for the public ideas, 3.47–not a significant difference.  Finally, she compared the single highest rated idea for each student; and it turned out that the public students’ single best idea was more creative than the proprietary students.

The results are not dramatic but they are suggestive.  Prof. Hinds concludes by discussing the reasons why this might be the case.  It could be that suppressing the proprietary information is mentally demanding, and so interferes with idea generation.  Or, it could be that students in the proprietary condition perceive the task to be more constraining, feel that they have less autonomy, and thus their motivation to create declines.  Prof. Hinds is inclined to the first explanation, but further research is needed.

Hinds, P. J.  2000. The hidden cost of keeping secrets: How protecting proprietary information can inhibit creativity.  Proceedings of the 33rd Hawaii Int’l Conference on Systems Science.

Do Apple Computers Make You More Creative?

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Apple’s corporate image is one of the creative iconoclast; their motto, “Think Different.” Their products look great. Artsy people like graphic designers, photographers, and film directors choose Apples.

Does the ad campaign work? Does the average person-in-the-street think of Apple computers as being more creative? A recent study done at Duke University’s Fuqua school of business provides some evidence that it does. This research has been all over the newspapers and even on NPR, so you may have already heard the take-home message: research subjects were shown an image of either Apple’s corporate logo or IBM’s corporate logo, and immediately afterwards they were given a creativity test. The subjects who’d seen the Apple logo scored higher on the creativity test. Ready-made message for news reporters: Apple really does make people “think different”. I’m sure Apple’s PR department was high-fiving over this free publicity!

But the details of the study haven’t been reported at all, and when you look at the details, the message is more complex. First of all, the test used to measure “creativity” has some problems; it’s from a research article published back in 1958, and all it asks is “think of as many unusual uses as possible for a brick.” (It’s called the “unusual uses test”.) This is a measure of what creativity researchers call “divergent thinking” and it isn’t really what most of us mean when we talk about creativity. And in fact, no studies have been able to prove that a higher score on divergent thinking tests translates into real-world creative output. Second, the difference between seeing Apple or IBM was very small. The 219 subjects who saw an Apple logo, on average, wrote down 7.68 uses; the 122 who saw IBM wrote down 6.10. When independent judges rated the creativity of the answers, Apple answers got a rating of 8.44, IBM answers a rating of 7.98. These differences were statistically significant, but it’s not hard for small differences to reach statistical significance when you have so many subjects; it’s well-known in psychological research that a greater number of subjects raises the significance of the finding. And furthermore, when the researchers added a third experimental condition–no brand logo shown at all–the Apple subjects did not score significantly higher than these “no brand” subjects (they still scored higher than IBM subjects, though).

The researchers later did another experiment where they first measured how much each subject valued creativity–how much they wanted to be creative. Those who scored low on this measure, who didn’t really want to be creative, showed no differences on the unusual uses test with either Apple or IBM logos. But those who scored highly showed a difference, coming up with about 8 unusual uses for the brick in the Apple condition, but just barely over 5 in the IBM condition, and just barely over 5 in the no-brand condition. (And, the independent judges rated the Apple uses as being the most creative of all three conditions.)

One final interesting fact about this study: in the first experiment, the Apple and IBM logos were flashed on the screen for only about 13 milliseconds, so briefly that no one was consciously aware they had seen the logo. This was a subliminal effect. In the second experiment, the one that asked about your motivation to be creative, the subjects actually saw (and manipulated) images of generic-looking computers, with either an Apple or IBM logo prominently displayed on the computer’s monitor (or no computers at all, in the no brand condition).

You know how your car always seems to run better after you take it to the car wash? Of course, it runs exactly the same as before you washed it. In the same way, when you use a product that you associate with creativity, you should feel more creative (even though you’re probably not). However, discovering that exposure to corporate logos changed their score on a test is intriguing. I wouldn’t call the “unusual uses test” a measure of creativity; but the experiment makes you wonder, nonetheless. Should Apple feel proud about the results of this research? The headline would be very different if it read “Staring at Apple computers helps you think of strange ways to use a brick.”