From a "Must Culture" to a "Can Culture": Legos and Lead Users

Joel Greenberg from the Austin-based GSD&M advertising firm is one of the fascinating people I am collaborating with on the Convergence Culture Consortium. Greenberg is a true believer in the collaborationist model I describe in my book and discussed here a while back. He's been putting together a series of podcasts called Friends Talking which interview some of the key thinkers in and out of industry on topics such as viral marketing, user-generated content, and community-based innovation. Greenberg brings in guests like The Long Tail's Chris Anderson, Got Game's John Beck, Linden Lab's Philip Rosendale, and others, sits down with them for a substantive conversation about cutting edge issues, and then runs the entire conversation via his podcast . In the most recent installment, Greenberg focuses attention on the concept of lead users and applies it to examine the development of the new Lego Mindstorms NXT product which is being released in time for Christmas. Lead user innovation is a term most closely associated with my MIT colleague, Eric Von Hippel, who wrote a book, Democratizing Innovation, which should be better known among media scholars than it has been. Von Hippel's focus is innovation in manufacturing -- how companies are tapping insights from their consumers to produce more effective products -- but what he says has many implications for the kinds of fan communities that emerge around popular culture. Indeed, I learned of Von Hippel's work -- not through hallway conversations at MIT but because Robert Kozinets combined Von Hippel's work in management science and my work in fan studies to talk about consumerism around Star Trek in his dissertation.

Basically, Von Hippel is arguing that companies need to identify what he is calling Lead Users -- these are both early adopters (in the sense that they are quick to purchase new products) and early adapters (in the sense that they often hack the products to retrofit them for their specialized needs.) By dealing with these communities and understanding how they appropriate and remake products, these companies can accelerate the design process, anticipating uses and desired features before the product even hits the mass market.

Inspired by an article in Wired, Greenberg sought out contact with some of the executives at Lego who are working on the new Mindstorms products. (Many will recall that the original insights that generated the Mindstorm series came from MIT Media Lab professor Seymour Papert, though adapted to the needs of the mass market. These tool kits which allow kids to do simple programming and build and control their own robots have been embraced in schools around the world.) When it came time to create the next product in the Mindstorm series, Lego pulled together some of the most innovative users of its products and incorporated them fully in the design process.

Attending a national conference and robotics competition in Austin, Greenberg was able to interview Soren Lund, the man Lego put in charge of the initiative and Ray Almgren, one of National Instruments' VP's who had worked closely with Lego to adapt their Labview software as the programming environment for Mindstorms. Lund speaks about the value of linking the "must culture" of a major corporation with the "can culture" which is emerging from the hobbyist and lead users within the networked community surrounding their products:

In a company, and this goes for pretty much every company, you have a must culture. That means, if I am your boss, I can tell you I want you to do this and that and maybe you are not really into it or maybe you have other priorities but as your boss, I can say you must do this. And if you say No, you're fired, right? Any company culture is a must culture, a must organization. You must do what I tell you to do. You can put it in a nicer way but that's how it works. With a community, it is a can organization. They can decide to do something. They can decide not to. You can't say to the guys in the community -- now you must help us in doing this and now you must.. Guess what, I'm out of here. I can't fire you because you are not part of the company. So, that is what is so valuable because they can keep pushing. They don't come up with what they think the average user needs or wants. They say as a member of the community what they want. I want it to do this. I want it to do that. I don't care about the rest. It's me. So you get honest and candid feedback from these guys focused only on what they are looking for and how it can be the best tool they can ever have. And they keep pushing. We've had interviews where we say thank you for the input on that topic but we must move on and the community has said no. We want this and they keep pushing....

For these guys, it has nothing to do with money. Their passion is building Mindstorms robots out of Lego bricks, programming them, hacking them, all of that stuff. so this is their favorite Hobby. For them, it doesn't get any better. Suddenly I can influence the product I like to work with. I may have my little fingers there on some of the development....then of course afterwards there is recognition among peers in the community.

What Lund has to say about Lego echoes what I report in Convergence Culture about the games industries. Will Wright, for example, told me that the game companies are now essentially competing to see which one can attract and sustain the most creative community since user-based innovation is the key to keeping a games franchise fresh and interesting over the long haul.

This is still so different from the relationship most television production units have with their fans, yet if they had more regular contact with their fans, they might learn to anticipate audience tastes and interests, producing episodes which better reflected the themes and characters that drive the community's passions towards a particular series. For example, in the mid-1980s, my work on fan cultures was showing me that fans were pushing hard for a more serialized approach to television narrative: they were reading even the most episodic series in terms of story arcs and program history. My work on Twin Peaks fans was showing that online communities would support much greater narrative complexity than current television was offering. And my work on fan video producers was showing that people wanted simple tools which would allow them to sample and remix television content as well as platforms by which they could share what they produced with the general public. It has taken a while for the rest of the viewing audience to catch up with where the fan community was at more than fifteen years ago but fan culture in the late 1980s looks very much like the television culture of today. What we are now calling Web 2.0 is simply fan culture without the stigma.

That said, the interview keeps circling back around what is the real sticking point in the conversation about lead user innovation: if consumers are helping to generate the intellectual property and helping to market the product, shouldn't they receive some economic return on their participation? Lund says No -- that this would fundamentally change their relationship to the company, turning everything back to work for hire and returning it to the "must culture" that shapes corporate life. Yet, skeptics might note that user-generated content taken to its logical extreme would result in cutbacks in the creative labor market as experienced professionals are displaced by grassroots volunteers. Lund is correct to depict lead users as having a strong desire to influence the decisions made by the companies that make the products they use and admire -- whether physical products like programmable bricks or cultural products like television shows. At the moment, they are grateful that people will simply listen to them and take their ideas seriously, especially given the history of not just neglect but open hostility to these grassroots communities. Yet, at what point, does this collaboration become exploitation? This is a core question all of us need to think through as we move towards a more collaborative and participatory culture.