In praise of open systems

Photo by Melanie Cook,
Photo by Melanie Cook,
I first started thinking seriously about open systems back in 2002, after I heard a conference speaker talk about the advantages of open-source software development versus a proprietary, closed approach. Taking an open approach in a business that has traditionally been a closed system, this speaker said, would be to our advantage in the future.

The speaker wasn’t a educational technologist or a marketing expert, and the conference wasn’t about computing, the Internet or higher ed marketing and PR. It was a ministry conference, and the speaker was theologian Leonard Sweet.

The fact that a higher ed PR/marketing guy like me got psyched about open-system theory from a theologian while sitting in on a ministry conference underscores my thoughts about the virtues of openness and, by extension, about connectivity, creativity and the genesis of good ideas. (I’m also a youth minister on the side, and that’s actually why I attended the 2002 event. But I also picked up some ideas of value to my day job and other pursuits.)

We never know when or where we’re going to find our inspiration or our next great idea, so we should try to stay open to as many possible channels as we can. Even more, I think we ought to actively seek out diverse viewpoints and perspectives in order to improve and innovate in our own narrow niche of higher ed marketing. We ought to look beyond our areas of expertise and our communities of practice in higher ed for inspiration from other disciplines — even if they seem far-fetched or irrelevant to our own.

But I’m troubled by what I see as a trend among many of us in the higher ed marketing field. We seem to prefer our closed systems, even in the wide-open ecosystem of the Internet. We tend to focus on our narrow areas of expertise — higher ed marketing and PR, for instance, or higher ed web, graphic design or whatever our field happens to be.

Inadvertently (or maybe intentionally for some?), we sometimes wall ourselves off from resources that could benefit our institutions, our faculty and staff, our marketing programs and ultimately, our students.

We do so at our peril.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for communities of practice, and I see the value in focus. I often seek guidance from experts in higher ed, and the very title of this blog — higher ed marketing — tends to pigeonhole me into a particular niche that I try hard not to stray from, much.

But I also look for inspiration and guidance from people and resources beyond the narrow straits of higher ed marketing and PR. I try to connect with a variety of viewpoints in my online interactions.

As you can see from my blogroll, I attempt to connect with a lot of people in the higher ed world and beyond. My blogroll includes links to some very good marketing, PR, news and tech sites outside of higher ed. (Admittedly, I don’t read all of those sites on a regular basis, although I should. I also list them in hopes that you might serendipitously discover a great read outside of your own field.)

The same goes for my RSS feed and my 1,200-plus Twitter connections, which includes musicians, branding and marketing people in and out of higher ed, techies, entrepreneurs, writers (fiction and non-fiction), artists, theologians (@lensweet is there) and sundry other categories of people. Also, some of my favorite higher ed tweeps post about life beyond college and university life. Some of these things are of mutual interest: music, baseball and bacon. Some post about topics that aren’t really in my wheelhouse — like NASCAR, fashion and child-rearing — but sometimes I learn from those posts, too.

* * * * *

steve-johnsonWhat really rebooted my thinking about open systems recently was Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (affiliate link). I really enjoyed Johnson’s book, so much so that I included it in my list of five good reads for 2010. As I wrote in that post, I find Johnson to be “[a] master of the art of lateral and cross-disciplinary thinking” who “brilliantly threads together ideas and patterns from a variety of fields.” In other words, he has a knack for examining a lot of discrete fields and disciplines — evolutionary biology, urban planning, computer science, entrepreneurship and astronomy, to name just a few — and uncovering the patterns and commonalities in them that offer clues to what enables the creation of good ideas.

Johnson talks about seven fertile “environments” that are needed to grow good ideas. Each of these seven areas — the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error, exaptation and platforms — interconnect and overlap to form an ecosystem of sorts in which good ideas may thrive.

But at the core of each of these areas, I believe, is a reliance more on openness than on closed or walled-off systems. Openness is where good ideas can take root and grow.

Regarding liquid networks, for example, the question arises: Does the web hinder serendipitous discovery or foster it?

We can point out how the web can easily reinforce narrow thinking. It’s easy to find like-minded people online who share your perspectives, and if you choose to interact only with those who reinforce your perspectives and biases, you’re less likely to run across any new ways of thinking that will spur you to think differently about a situation or a problem. That’s the closed-system approach to using the web.

But if you view the web as an open system, you’ll find that the Internet does in fact foster serendipitous discovery. Recent favorites I’ve saved from my Twitter stream reinforce this. Without Twitter, I doubt I’d have found out these gems:

As Johnson points out, “… the web is an unrivaled medium for serendipity if you are actively seeking it out” (p. 121).

Granted, we all use filters to screen out noise. But are we in the higher ed marketing and PR field — or any other field — in danger of filtering out too much? Again, Johnson points out that along with serendipity, error and noise play a vital part in discovering good ideas. “[G]ood ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error” (p. 142).

Finally, maybe opening up your filters just a bit will help you with your career path, creativity or quest for entrepreneurial independence. Johnson cites a study of Stanford University grad students from the late 1990s that seems to support this idea. “Diverse, horizontal social networks … were three times more innovative than uniform, vertical networks. In groups united by shared values and long-term familiarity, conformity and convention tended to dampen any potential creative sparks” (p. 166).

In recent weeks, we’ve witnessed the power of open networks in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. Revolution 2.0, as it’s being called, is helping to topple regimes that were presumed secure.

Opening your network a little bit more might not lead to a revolutionary idea, but it might. And how will you know until you try?

So go ahead. Add some more diverse perspectives to your Twitter feed. Open up that blogroll beyond the usual higher ed suspects. Listen to some different music. Watch a silent movie. Read outside of your discipline. Maybe you’ll gain a new perspective.

If this post has inspired you to open your networks a bit more, please let me know how it goes.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

5 thoughts on “In praise of open systems”

  1. You’re a part-time youth minister who is into open systems theory? You should meet my Web developer, also a youth minister who has introduced all kinds of open-source software into our world…

    Great post!

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