Everything big started small

Last week, AMP hosted its biannual innovation and thought leadership festival, which this year was billed AMPLIFY09: Convergence and Emergence.

I was lucky enough to attend many of the speaking sessions, and even live blog some of them.

While the topics were diverse, one of the principles in particular that resonated with me was “Everything big started small”, which was workshopped by Dr BJ Fogg, Director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University.

Tree seedling, courtesy of Fire Engine Red, Flickr, under Creative Commons.

Starting small

In his session The New World of Persuasive Technology, BJ noted that, when you consider the history of successful consumer Internet services, a striking similarity emerges: each one started in a small, focused way.

BJ offered Google as an example, which started as a search engine developed by a couple of college students.

Other high profile examples I can think of include Dell, which stemmed from its eponymous founder building computers in his dorm room, and of course Microsoft, which stemmed from Bill Gates and Paul Allen developing a BASIC interpreter for a microcomputer.

BJ’s point is that as small offerings succeed, they can expand. Sure, growth is slower than a big bang, but it’s steady.

And perhaps most importantly: when small offerings fail, the impact is small – so the remedy and recovery can be quick.

Compare that to those complex, ambitious offerings that try to offer everything to everyone. They require huge amounts of time, effort and money to design and implement. If they succeed, great; but if they fail, there is so much more to lose.

The bigger they are, they harder they fall.

Tall tree.

Implications for e-learning

In terms of e-learning, the principle of “Everything big started small” can apply to introducing a new technology (eg blogs, wikis) or pedagogy (eg m‑learning, virtual classes).

At my workplace, I will be mindful of introducing a new initiative on a small scale. Probably the most appropriate means of doing this would be to select a pilot team to trial it.

If the initiative is successful for the pilot team, I can add more teams into the program and perhaps evolve the offering. Further successes will, in turn, drive further expansion.

If the initiative happens to fail for the pilot team, I can fix the problem quickly and re-deploy the updated offering.

If the initiative fails spectacularly, I can simply pull the pin – without inconveniencing the broader organisation or wasting our shareholders’ money.

One thought on “Everything big started small

  1. Great post! This really hits home with my experience implementing eLearning in an organization. Fortunately, at the time there was not a huge demand in the organization for eLearning so I had the luxury of starting small. I was able to ease the organization into eLearning with small assignments to small groups of people. I definitely learned a lot from the wins and losses without it having a big impact on the company. Now that we have worked out the kinks I have the challenge of keeping up with the demand. You could say eLearning has reached it’s tipping point in my organization.

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