Steven Hodas

Michael Horn’s recent piece on the failure of inBloom captures why it was the very opposite of a disruptive innovation from a markets perspective, as well the fatal blind spots and judgment errors present from its inception.

Another useful way to frame this—disruption theory aside— is as a contrast between two fundamentally different grammars of innovation.

inBloom was a textbook example of what I call “Innovation 1.0”, which thinks of innovation as a noun, a thing with transformative transitive properties that magically make its recipient “innovative.” It’s the cargo–cult theory of innovation: I give you this innovative thing (a tablet, a data warehouse, an LMS) and you thereby become innovative yourself. This Innovation 1.0 approach to both product and policy has characterized a great deal of foundation and Federal efforts over the past ten years.

But as Michael points out (and as real innovators and entrepreneurs understand viscerally), “innovation” is not a noun but a verb. It is not a thing but a process, a frame of mind, a set of reflexes. He correctly notes the essential iterative approach that characterizes innovation–as–a–verb, its make–something–big–by–making–something–small theory of action (this is fundamentally different from piloting or focus–grouping, but that’s another topic).

But it’s important to go deeper and understand why iteration is important. Simply, it is a means to bake into the process, the product, or the policy a respect for users’ subjectivity and autonomy. In short, functional iteration requires that you listen.

True, durable innovation, “Innovation 2.0” is not some thing I can give to you, do to you, or even do for you: it must be a process I do with you. Lean Startup theory—with its emphasis on iteration, an assumption of the innovator’s fallibility and limited perspective, and the importance of low–cost, low–stakes discovery of product–market fit that Michael describes—is essentially a cookbook for baking empathy into the development of products, services, or policies.

This is the most difficult behavior for government and for those organizations like inBloom that serve or mirror them. Their “practice culture” compels them to speak rather than to listen and to act as if they know the answer, when in fact they often don’t even know the problem, at least as it would be described by their users. As Michael notes, “I need a data warehouse that will store and distribute children’s information wherever,” was a need articulated by very, very few districts. And, I would add, by no parent ever.

That doesn’t mean inBloom was a bad idea. But the failure to anticipate its vehement visceral rejection—however misinformed and however cynically exploited by those with larger agendas—was a profound failure of imagination, of empathy, of the respect for user subjectivity that characterizes Innovation 2.0.

It’s ironic that those policymakers who are most comfortable with marketplace structures often forget the first lesson of the marketplace: the customer is always right. inBloom’s hoped–for payers may have been districts but its important customers from the perspective of public policy and legitimating, the ones who forced it from the marketplace, were parents.

It would have been simple to create applications for parents that demonstrate the powerful benefits that inBloom had to offer. This is Marketing 101: offer something specific to offset inchoate frustration and anxiety, in this case stemming from the relentless consent–free quantification imposed on all of us by organizations beyond our control.

An Innovation 2.0 approach would have started with humility and the presumption that what parents want matters. From the outset, those values would have informed an iterative, collaborative product and policy development process and by the end, many parents (though never all) would have been clamoring to have inBloom in their districts. That’s how market forces truly work, and innovators and reformers of all stripes would do well to remember the lessons that inBloom learned so harshly.

 

steven hodas

Steven Hodas was formerly Executive Director at the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Innovation. He is currently Practitioner–in–Residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Follow Steven on Twitter at @stevenhodas.

 

7 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, inBloom was naive. But here’s the thing: inBloom positioned itself as infrastructure, and infrastructure often benefits from being innovation 1.0. Sometimes its the right thing. That they ignored privacy was less a failure of empathy than an appropriate (for the time) limiting of scope, perhaps? This was _before_ privacy became a” thing”, but even so they were a far better tool for addressing privacy than what currently exists in most districts.

    Not only that, but inBloom was solving – actually solving (!!) – one of the biggest obstacles to building education-as-a-platform and unleashing innovation 2.0 at higher layers which ought NOT to be standardized (unlike infrastructure which, of course, should). And doing so with modern, well-conceived software design and talented people who, in my view, DID have the empathy to SOLVE THE RIGHT PROBLEM!!! That is what UX empathy is all about.

    The demise of inBloom is a tragedy – the victory of the pitchforks over enlightened, humane, solutions characterized as monstrous. The failure of states to consider the infrastructure of school technology in the way they do roads and water means that now the privacy problem which blew up inBloom is left to be solved via handcrafted, non-standardized, ridiculously burdensome efforts and (often) less adequate tools.

  2. Sorry Marie, but the way inBloom did things was akin to a doctor saying “you need this shot” and trying to jam a needle in your arm without first discussing what was wrong with you and what was in the needle. The empathy to ask those questions matters because our children aren’t roads or water system and the goal of education shouldn’t be optimizing for throughput like we do with utilities. I might be sick with a bacterial infection, but before any needle gets jammed in my arm, I’m going to make sure that the right folks know I’m allergic to penicillin. inBloom acted as though knowing I was sick was all the empathy they needed and, in taking that route, they gave the pitchfork/bigger agenda crowd all the power they needed to bring them to their knees. This post not only handles saying that with grace, but it gives a roadmap for how others with real empathy can avoid the tech-solutionism path to ruin.

  3. “It would have been simple to create apps for parents that demonstrate powerful benefits that inBloom had to offer.” Um no. This piece shows the same arrogance & condescension that inBloom’s creators & myriad defenders exhibit. Clearly, none of them have learned anything from this debacle.

  4. A good idea to house over 400 data points on OUR children, go through 2 processes before the data was encrypted and not allowing parents to refuse data share to boot? Seriously, how can anything positive be written about inBloom? This article baffles me. Such misleading words.

  5. What you don’t get is, as a parent you don’t
    get my child’s personal information without my consent. Simple.
    I am neither misinformed or cynical. You however, are both.

  6. The creators of inBloom and the author may disagree about what qualifies as “innovation”. However, both seem to miss the point. Parents don’t want our children’s personally identifiable information collected, shared or stored without our consent. Decisions about our children’s personal and private information should be up to us. Period. End of Story. Moreover, the priorities of parents and “innovators” are different. Parents want our limited and hard earned taxpayer dollars spent on reducing class sizes, providing arts and sports and well rounded curricula, not on lining corporate coffers. No doubt Mr. Hodas and others will try using different shades of lipstick. Hopefully, most parents will recognize the attempt as just another example of giving a fashion makeover to a pig.

  7. This author is talking at a superficial level about profound issues related to the”disruptive technologies” that technologists believe will save today’s education system. InBloom was touted not just as a cloud storage system but as a tool to distribute children’s personally identifiable data to entities whom parents have no knowledge of and for purposes parents have not given permission. This InBloom mission assumes that the promises of technologists are worthy and ethical and that technology disruption is in the best interests of children and that parents should have no say in where their children’s data goes and that technology benefits are essentially self evident. Hodas doesn’t address the ethical questions as to whether PII should be used to determine a child’s “learning style,” with customized learning content fed back to the student based on that so-called learning style, or whether behavioral data should be stored as PII in places where parents cannot verify accuracy or relevance, and a host of other concerns. When technologists start getting serious about the ethics of what and how they conduct their business, then maybe progress can occur related to technology and kids. It’s on these complex issues that two members of Jefferson County School Board in Colorado, of whom I was one, argued that InBloom was not a solution that was right for Jeffco kids. If we were cynically exploited troglodytes, so be it. InBloom supporters and their cohorts should take a Khan Academy course in ethics and privacy.

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