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Eclipse Convention ... Transparent Innovation in Ergonomics

Recently at an ergonomics conference, I attended a post-conference get together. Earlier I had mentioned “transparent innovation” to someone at the table. Then someone asked a memorable question … “What the $#%& is transparent innovation?”.

I thought to myself, “That’s a good question.” Let me explain.

First I would like to share that Saturn Ergonomics has a strong focus on innovation in applied ergonomics. Besides delivering traditional consulting services (training, evaluating jobs, etc.), the core mission of Saturn Ergonomics is to develop innovative new ergo technologies … enabling us to do things we simply couldn’t do before.

An example is contribution in the development of cumulative/additive ergonomics evaluation models. With many traditional ergo evaluation tools, there is really no way to model/evaluate the realities we observe. Most ergo risk assessment & evaluation tools simply do not handle variation. Variation as in forces of different magnitudes, different frequencies, different durations, etc. As a result, you are forced to either evaluate the worst-case scenario (EXAMPLE: Perform a lifting calculation for the heaviest lift) or plug a weighted average value into the model (EXAMPLE: calculate a weighted average of hand grip force when forces of different magnitude occur in the same task … say two 50 lb. hand grip forces & three 12 lb. hand grip forces). Evaluating the worst case scenario and using weighted averages are adaptations we make because the models themselves don’t handle the variation. The reality is that there are few mono-tasks to evaluate! To objectively model (and evaluate) work, we need cumulative/additive ergo evaluation technologies. The RCRA (Recommended Cumulative Recovery Allowance) is a cumulative/additive ergo evaluation technology developed in collaboration with others to address this problem. By design, RCRA enables the ergonomists to evaluate forces of different magnitude, different duration, and different frequency … all in the same calculation!

So now that I’ve made the point about innovation being a priority for Saturn Ergonomics, I’ll now get on with explaining the “transparent” in transparent innovation.

The essence of transparent innovation is sharing and collaborating with others. If you keep your ideas to yourself, and don’t truly “share” - as an individual or as a company - you won’t have as many ideas. I find that many of my ideas & innovations are combinatorial in nature - merging existing things together in new, innovative ways. I think of this as the intersection of my ideas with the ideas and works of others. Ideas rarely occur in a vacuum; innovation requires sharing with others.

“Others” tend to include a mix of seasoned ergo practitioners, academic/research ergonomists, and students. Yes, not a typo, students. Students have amazingly “current” technical skills, solid knowledge of the latest research, and very open minds (minds that have yet to be contaminated by years of company politics, tiring bureaucracy, etc.). I like to say that students don’t know that you’re not supposed to be able to do these things.

Transparent also means sharing early-stage innovations with others. It’s important to gain feedback from practitioners to help shape/mold your innovations. If you don’t have an element of transparency to your innovation process, this will never occur. I routinely share ideas and openly discuss new models with industry and academic ergonomists.

The technology infrastructure of Saturn Ergonomics is even being designed to facilitate sharing new ergo technologies. Through a cloud-based app technology platform, industry & academic ergonomists will be able to access early-stage ergo technologies. These ergonomist will be the first to use & apply the new technologies, and will provide valuable feedback which will rapidly be incorporated back into the design. And for some new technologies, the objective will be to collect application data. This type of technology infrastructure will enable rapid, iterative design & deployment of new ergo technologies.

Transparency also means publishing and/or presenting (another form of sharing) the core models behind ergo technology innovations. This may be the highest form of sharing a new model with the world. Publishing and presenting at research-based conferences basically enables the world to see the the inner workings of your model, the logic behind it, and see how the model is based upon (or expands upon) the research literature. It's kind of scary to “bare your soul” to the world in this manner, particularly if presenting a newly developed model or approach. This requires you to take a risk because …

- Everyone might not agree with your model or approach (some may even tell you to your face)

- You could have made a mistake in the logic of your model.

- You may have overlooked published research related to your model or innovation.

But it’s important to take these risks and share new things. If a company develops a new “innovation”, and sells this exclusively to their clients - without sharing the inner workings of the core model with the rest of the world - they will simply never have the opportunity to hear voices of disagreement. Constructive criticism, even destructive criticism, is important because it forces you to defend & better explain your model; and leads to a better understanding of your model’s strengths & weaknesses. Some of the research ergonomists I truly value sharing ideas with can be brutally honest. They don’t just nod in agreement and tell you “That looks great!” every time.

I also believe that a certain level of transparency is important when introducing new technologies. A business may state that a proprietary model or tool is “research based” or “evidence based”. But if they are unwilling to articulate the specific research it’s based upon and don’t publish something themselves, who knows? I believe to qualify as truly being research-based, when asked “What research is your model based upon?”, you should be ready and willing to answer the question. For example, with the RCRA it's relatively easy to produce a handful of research papers from which the RCRA evolved or was influenced by - basically explain the “model evolution”. It’s a published model, and should be readily shared with others.

The alternative is NOT being transparent; NOT sharing! This can be thought of as old-school thinking with respect to closely protecting and guarding innovations & ideas. This type of thinking is the norm in highly competitive commodity type economies, with fierce competition, and every company appears to basically provide the same thing. In that environment, companies struggle to protect what little edge they have just to survive. It could be argued that this is the essence of the scarcity mentality.

And even in these highly competitive economies there are exceptions. One example is Tesla Motors. Tesla demonstrates an abundance mentality by openly sharing MANY of their technology patents - to enable a stronger overall economy of electric/battery powered automobiles. Tesla obviously believes that they can share these technologies with other automakers, and STILL deliver the next big innovations in battery powered automobiles. That’s abundance thinking!

I realize that transparent innovation is not for everyone, and may even be a double-edged sword. There is potential for the competition to use or copy the model … a disadvantage (or flattery?). If ideas were limited, and you didn’t believe you could continue to have new ideas and create even better models & applications in the future, this would certainly be the case. But ideas and innovation are unlimited. Like I said, I have an abundance mentality with respect to ergonomics innovation. And I believe the advantages of transparent innovation clearly outweigh the disadvantages. Saturn Ergonomics believes in transparent innovation.