Open Engagement

I have posted a short essay on “open engagement” on our Open 3d Printing project blog. The ideas behind this essay came about in discussions between me and Mark Ganter over responses we were seeing to the publication of various powder/binder system recipes. Some folks wanted us to provide everything necessary to make these recipes just “work”. This, while the lab was working through many combinations of settings trying to ascertain a number of performance characteristics. Here’s an extension of the thoughts presented there.

The idea of engagement with the materials is really fundamental to understanding “technology transfer”. If one person is engaged, and the other is not, then the demand for “help” is more of the form of “supply me with the resources necessary to preserve me in not being engaged with the materials.” That is, it is the request of a customer for a product. It is not the transfer of a technology, but of a black box function. A technology in a form that doesn’t have to be learned, or engaged with. In this way, a product can be seen as an effort to substantially reduce the need for a user to be engaged with the materials. Many times this is hugely important, but sometimes, users feel that their choices in use are constrained by the features of the product, such as when digital rights management systems prevent one from transferring a song from one device to another, or when a browser does not allow user defined “skins”.

If one wanted to go at it, the calls that there is a “funding gap” in technology transfer might be re-expressed as: “we have chosen to transfer our realizations as proto-products and therefore require funds to fix things up now that we have stripped away all the tacit knowledge and other intangible assets that typically surround a new capability discovered in research. A funding gap exists because we lack the resources to make this new proto-product look sufficiently product like that the risk of adopting it as a product has been reduced to the point that investors who specialize in acquiring new products will consider it.” That’s long winded. But perhaps you see the point. The funding gap is simply a struggling acknowledgment that the marketing effort attempts to transfer rights referenced to some future product, without mutual engagement.

Open engagement means, then, that we have mutual engagement with the materials, and with each other. Collaborators then are both working in non-product environments, engaged with their materials. This standing allows the exchange of information to be directed in an important way, at means accounts rather than product speciifcations.

Consider teaching environments where the goal is to ensure that an idea has become personal and not just accepted analytically (knowing as a fact) or rotely (knowing as an imitation). In magic, I’m told, one does this not by revealing how a trick is done, but by putting an apprentice in a condition where if they work at it, they will discover for themselves how the trick can be done. That is, they must be engaged with the materials for the kind of learning to take place that is necessary. This is what happens when one learns a language. One can memorize facts about grammar and memorize phrases, but not be fluent at all. Fluency, one might argue, comes from engagement, from personal memory of speaking and thinking and hearing the language. That is, fluency involves engagement that leads to one’s own recognition or epiphany, and these recognitions are crucial in framing one’s own mastery of the materials. It is this mastery that is the objective of open engagement, not some flow of “information” or “knowledge”. Rather, it is the flow of the conditions that advance engagement.

If one thinks about this a bit, it becomes apparent how universities get at cross purposes with themselves and loathe industry for it. If the goal is to transfer “information” then one is already pretty much in the product camp, thinking about information as it pertains to what a future customer would need, and trying to get a manufacturing partner to agree, rather than considering what is needed by way of relationship so that one’s collaborators come to an understanding on their own, and which then would be their own. That is, it is possible to “transfer” a great deal of creative work without transferring specific information or “knowledge” at all. What is transferred is a set of conditions that allow another to have things for themselves, as they realize them, so there is no disclosure of confidential information, no licensing as a precondition to collaboration. Knowledge then arises, as it does in personal experience, rather than is infused, as it might if one were asked to substitute someone else’s experience for their own. In this, we learn not to reason from a word like “transfer” and think that we have to schlep something concrete from here to there. We might remind ourselves that the Greek word for it is “metaphor” and that one can compose for another the conditions so that they come into possession of their new capability like our own without the requirement of copying what it is one has already done, or knows.

Such transfer is a form of respect. Rather than imposing how one does something in a particular way, one engages another so that they have a comparable realization. The mystery in this is that the teacher does not necessarily know how the student has solved the problem. There is no obligation to “show one’s work” if you will. Instead, there is only the shared demonstration of ways of doing it. They may be the same, and they may not. The teacher and student may never know. If they do, it will be because they compare notes as peers, as mutually practitioners, not because one is checking the work of the other. All this may sound very touchy feely. Why not just demand something get done a given way, get done right, and get practiced until it is done that way? Sure, that’s another route. But why pound out a single route to the uptake for practice when doing so turns discovery into duty, limits the variation in that discovery, and ends up imposing rather than engaging? What limitation of character demands mastery to arise from imitation? Why should we even expect mastery from imitation to be the primary way by which exceptional capability is realized? Does the violin teacher demand imitation until the end? The basketball coach? No, once past certain fundamentals, for the best talent, imitation will be damaging. One doesn’t imitate scales, one embeds them in personal experience. The instructor provides the pattern and technique, but in the end, cannot demand imitation and still be said to teach. For the best talent, the talent that intends to lead the field, training must move swiftly from imitation to engagement. We should expect to find a similar movement in university engagement with industry.

The point here, then, is how to move engagement into the fundamental relationships by which research communities embedded in organizations collaborate. Contracts that focus on IP and research obligations tend to be bone dry on engagement. Open methods alone do not address this, as a public license merely handles the permissions and documentation issues, but not those of engagement. Open can be as dry as anything else, as anyone dealing with an RTFM reply might know. The reality is, a manual is not necessarily a substitute for the conditions of engagement, though it may be another object of engagement (since its information and organization may not be the best produced stuff in the world either).

To build open engagement, then, one works at three levels. First, one engages materials and expects this (and respects this) in others. Second, one is public about the engagement, so it is visible and others understand the objectives and practices involved. Third, there is engagement between groups working at mutual levels of effort, but perhaps with very different skill sets and objectives. One group may be doing research in a university and another may be building a prototype product and yet another may be a service bureau trying to optimize a particular manufacturing process. Collectively, the point of collaboration is not the subject matter key word, not some enabling invention, but rather the creative–the compositional–environment in which being engaged with each other shapes local strategies of recognition and practice. Everyone has their own stuff, and yet everyone also benefits from the insights and mentoring of the others, even in accidental rather than deliberate ways. In this manner, one greatly increases the odds that a seemingly random observation will open up unexpected new lines of development. In the hunt between the expected and the unexpected, the object of university research is the unexpected, and that is the distinctive value that university research brings to industry collaborations and to community generally. That’s what open engagement strategies are best at eliciting.

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