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The role of copying in innovation

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The role of copying in innovation

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The popular myth around innovations, and indeed inventions, are that they are groundbreaking discoveries, the likes of which we have never seen before.  This notion of creativity as something unique and wonderful crosses any number of fields, from artistic to scientific.  To copy is therefore seen as something bad and dishonourable.

This post isn’t designed to debate the moral and ethical merits (or otherwise) of copying, but rather to explore the innovative benefits of doing so.  How much of what we regard as innovation is, after all, a remix of what has gone before, or what has already proven to be effective in other fields?

A study published a few months ago explored the issue of remixing ideas and concepts.  It highlighted the prospect of a remixing dilemma, whereby the parts of an idea that encourage people to take it and remix it, are such that they hamper the chances of that new work being original in itself.

It’s almost as if you get diminishing returns with each subsequent remix.  The study based its findings on the Scratch programming language.  Scratch programmers are encouraged to share their creations with others, and of course to use the creations of others in their own work, much as many open source languages do.

They found that famous programmers in the Scratch community would have their work reused a lot, but that many of the remixes were of a rather trivial nature, ie they weren’t adding much to the original.  What’s more, they also found that people were more likely to re-use existing remixes than they were purely original work.

All of which probably has some parallels with the commercial world.  After all, seemingly novel practices are generally taken from some often unknown source, before being taken to the mass market by the business schools and management literature.

This is a generally health process, and is no doubt representative of a natural flow of ideas throughout an ecosystem.  The challenge therefore is for organisations to get better at both sensing what is going on in the world, and then responding rapidly to those changes.

Social business can play a critical role in this as it allows organisations to bring many more people into the strategic and decision making process, thus allowing you to cast your net much wider in the hunt for innovative ideas.

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