Emotional tension as a catalyst for digital innovation

Avoid tension, strive for consensus, get everyone facing in the same direction... That’s the secret to a successful organisation. Or is it? “Not if you want to make big bold bets like the Amazons and Googles of this world - radical digital innovations or disruptions, goods or services you never thought were possible”, Willem Standaert, lecturer at Vlerick, tells us. So how should you do it then? He joined forces with Sirkka Jarvenpaa, Professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin, to analyse Formula E, Formula 1’s little electric-powered brother, and find an answer to that question.

Formula E: a sport or a game?

“The first Formula 1 race dates back to 1950, while the first ePrix took place in Peking in 2014”, Willem explains. “Formula E is more of a disruptor than you might think at first glance. Unlike Formula 1, the cars in this race are entirely electric, and the races mainly take place on street circuits in major cities like Hong Kong, Rome and New York. But the biggest and most appealing difference is the FanBoost: in the run-up to the race, fans can vote for their favourite driver on a website, Twitter or mobile app. The three drivers who get the most votes are given extra power: during the race they can press a button to use that power for five seconds, allowing them to overtake a competitor or defend their lead.”

“That FanBoost mechanism is quite controversial", he continues. “Some fans are frustrated and outraged. They feel it turns Formula E from a fair competition into a popularity poll. Supporters, on the other hand, feel it is an original way to get the fans more involved. They draw analogies with video games and are actually thinking of ways to introduce even more elements of gaming to the race, such as virtual objects on the track that the drivers can pick up to collect extra points, or even ways for fans to change the track layout just before or even during the race. Debates are also ongoing about the voting process – from the duration to whether or not you should be allowed to vote for all the drivers and so on.”

Openness is key

Digitalisation is rapidly taking over the world and we are seeing more and more hybrid applications in a wide range of sectors, with the digital and physical world blending together seamlessly. Two examples are Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game, and Amazon Go, the automated supermarket where you check in with your smartphone, get your groceries and automatically pay with your Amazon account as you walk out. Digitalisation offers almost endless possibilities – the only limit is our imagination. So the key is to always be open to new ideas and possibilities. The question then is how you can perpetuate this openness. That became the research question of this study.

Digital probes

“The well-known method, where you set up an experiment to test a hypothesis that is then confirmed or rejected, can lead to gradual, incremental innovation, but not to great leaps forward or floods of new ideas”, Willem explains. “The examples we studied reveal a different mechanism where tension is generated by what we have called a digital probe.”

A digital probe or stimulus of this kind, such as the FanBoost, deliberately aims to stir up controversy. The people involved experience and interpret it in different ways, which results in emotional tension. And it is exactly that tension that leads to new, divergent ideas and possibilities, which, in turn, create new emotional tensions. Again, this leads to more divergent ideas and possibilities. In this way, digital probes set a continuous process of generating divergent ideas in motion.

Fans behind the wheel

The researchers analysed two additional digital probes in Formula E. The eRace, in which fans could race their idols in the virtual world, elicited emotional responses from both supporters and opponents, but it also generated many new ideas. “Just imagine being able to take over a driver's wheel remotely if you see they aren’t managing to overtake one of their rivals”, he enthuses. “The Roborace, launched as a side event to the Formula E competition, is a race between self-driving cars. Here too, opinions are really divided to begin with, but all sorts of new ideas pop up as well, such as crowdsourcing of algorithms - amateur teams developing their own algorithms to ‘race’ against the professional teams - and extreme racing formats, with self-driving car street races during rush hour, or racing on tracks that are too dangerous for cars with human drivers - tracks with loops, corkscrews and ramps.”

What is art?

Digital probes are not limited to the examples from Formula E. Last October, Christie’s auctioned off a painting made by artificial intelligence (AI). It sold for 432,500 USD, over forty times more than expected. The auction can be considered a digital probe: it provoked intense reactions among artists and art connoisseurs, who wondered whether the painting could even be considered art in the first place, as well as AI experts, who felt it was a very mundane application of AI. However, it is precisely this tension that can inspire others to come up with new ideas to combine AI and visual arts, ideas that will undoubtedly result in new reactions and tensions.

Tensions from a different perspective

Why do the researchers believe this study is important? “Technological innovation goes at a very rapid pace. This is due to the fact that various resources can easily be combined. We already have good insight into how this works: thanks to open standards, technologies can work together flexibly. Just look at Pokémon Go that combines Google Maps data with Augmented Reality and GPS technology. However, research into the role of human resources is lacking. Our research aims to close this gap. It also casts a different light on emotional tensions in organisations, showing that tension is not necessarily problematic and that it is not always advantageous to seek consensus.” 

A good tip for organisations looking for radical, digital innovation? Embrace tensions!

Source: The paper ‘Digital Probes as Opening Possibilities of Generativity’, published in the Journal of the Association for Information Systems (2018) 19(10), 982-1000, a copy of which can be requested from the authors.
About the authors: Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa is Professor of Information Systems and James Bayless/Rauscher Pierce Refsnes Chair in Business Administration at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin (USA). Willem Standaert is a lecturer at Vlerick Business School and researcher at Ghent University. He studies the use of digital technology for communication and innovation.

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