Why Things Burn

While lighting a match or starting your car may appear otherwise, ignition actually requires a precarious blend of fuel, oxygen, and energy. Heat is emitted when the energy stored in a given thing is released; energy can be released when these materials react with the oxygen in the air (combustion). During the combustion process, things move from a higher energy state to a lower energy state. So, if thermochemistry dictates that wood is in a much higher energy state than its fuel, why doesn't it spontaneously ignite? Sure, spontaneous combustion is theoretically possible but in reality, it simply doesn't happen.

Same goes for business. Without achieving the right balance of planning, investment, and risk (and a multitude of other ingre-dients), a business won't flourish. And according to Larry Prusak, who keynoted the recent Buying and Selling eContent conference, ideas are one key ingredient many businesses should not only be stocking up on, but also intensively home-growing in order to concoct a sure-fire formula for success.

Throughout the event, show co-sponsor Outsell focused on a simple return to the fundamentals of business: be profitable, build cash, watch market value, grow revenues. If only many businesses success were that simple…Prusak, however, delivered a very different message. Prusak, who co-authored What's the Big Idea: Creating and Capitalizing on the Best Management Thinking with Tom Davenport and James Wilson, kicked off the show by discussing the power of the right ideas to ensure business success. In a down economy, new ideas are the last thing anyone wants to hear about, much less invest in, especially if there's even the slightest taint of fad on them. With streamlined operating costs being at the forefront of budgets, investing in any remotely risky proposition holds little appeal.

Yet in What's the Big Idea, the authors say, "Like any other form of rhetoric, ideas can inspire, motivate, and bring energy to both individuals and organizations." Energy, without a doubt, is something all businesses need to harness. But Prusak also makes a clear distinction between fads and genuine process-changing ideas. His examples include the Total Quality Management movement of the 1950s. Was something so basic as emphasizing quality a process-changing idea? Yep. And the fact that we take it as a basic premise of manufacturing today demonstrates the idea's lasting resonance. Prusak points to other process-changing concepts like Knowledge Management, which he believes has become a given within leading organizations and as such, has passed its prime as a buzzword (and passed into blasé-speak as a basic business tenet).

As demonstrated in Prusak's examples, by "process-changing ideas" he means approaches that improve business performance and management rather than ideas for new products or services that companies can take to the marketplace.

Prusak and his co-authors believe that one way ideas can be invested in and, perhaps more importantly, vetted is by identifying and nurturing so-called "idea-practitioners" within an organization. These practitioners, they posit, are rarely at the top of the corporate or organizational hierarchy. They've usually been with a firm for 10 to 20 years and have a rich interpersonal network within the organization. They tend to have liberal arts or social science degrees (hmmm, not MBAs), read a lot (good news), and are articulate and persuasive. But the thing that they—and the businesses whose success they enable—know how to evaluate is fit. They can translate an idea and effectively communicate its value in context, to the organization's top decision-makers. They can fit the right idea to the firm at the right time. As Prusak says—perhaps unwittingly iterating a current mantra of our industry—"Context triumphs over content every time."

And there is a context in which idea practitioners—and their ideas—can best be born and flourish. Ideas just don't happen spontaneously; there's a lifecycle to them, from creating an environment that fosters investment in their creation, to acting upon the idea itself. Unless you court the spark, an idea will not ignite, much less effect lasting business-process transformation.

I admit that the vision of an idea practitioner intelligentsia within successful organizations appeals to an econtent proponent. What better to fuel the creative flame than compelling content that is well-managed and delivered in context when it is most needed? Thus fueled, these idea practitioners are able to transform ideas into energy that will propel organizations on the path to success. And this will allow managers to embrace the power of ideas while avoiding the hype that often accompanies them.