Intrinsic motivation - from Magic Trackpad to @psychemedia

In a recent talk at TEDGlobal 2010 in Oxford, Clay Shirky (above) discusses a very interesting topic - intrinsic motivation.  The critical section starts at around 6 minutes into the video, so watch this if you don't have time for the whole thing.  The talk is about the larger (and also quite fascinating) concept of "cognitive surplus", which Shirky illustrates with some examples of the power of Internet mediated grassroots activism in a post-TV era. And yes, he does have a book out :-)

So, what's this all about?  Let me frame it like this... Why is it that companies like Apple and Google consistently produce exceptional ideas, products and services? How can other organizations best learn from these firms?

Intrinsic motivation is all about doing things because they interest and stimulate you.  This is in direct contrast to extrinsic motivation, which is principally about doing things because you have been instructed or coerced to - often with some implied threat of punishment for failure.

Probably the key text in this area is "Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation" by Edward Deci, from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1971.  You might struggle to find this online, though. Deci also co-wrote a widely cited book Intrinsic motivation and self-motivation in human behavior, which you can peek at via Google Books.  In a recent paper looking back at 30 years of research into this area, Deci and Richard Ryan observe that:

The most basic distinction is between intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome. Over three decades of research has shown that the quality of experience and performance can be very different when one is behaving for intrinsic versus extrinsic reasons.

This theory helps to explain why activities that used to be fun and rewarding in themselves (such as programming computers) can turn almost overnight into chores - e.g. "you have two weeks to recode the user interface before the pitch to the angel investors".  In a situation where extrinsic motivation is the norm, tasks and goals are typically imposed externally by management and there is little opportunity for self-direction. Let's picture that the latter approach is taken to extremes, leading to demoralization and poor productivity.  In an extrinsic culture this would likely lead to rounds of performance reviews, layoffs if targets are not met, and so on.

I think the continuing success of companies like Apple and Google (and there aren't many companies like them!) is due in a large part to tapping into intrinsic motivation in their staff, with new hires and acquisitions only made if they fit into this mindset.  Much has been made of Google's famous "20% time" for personal projects, which gave rise to the likes of Gmail, Google News and Adsense. I'd contend that the culture of intrinsic motivation actually runs much broader and deeper. In my experience working with Google over the last few months this happens in a number of ways, e.g. by letting staff choose projects to work on, encouraging people to take personal responsibility for the results, and working in small project oriented groups rather than a top down hierarchical structure.

We've been doing some work with Apple recently too. I don't have similar visibility of their inner workings yet, but my feeling is that for all the public perception of control freakery, something similar is at work. For example I don't envisage a top down directive that "we must make the conventional mouse obsolete by Christmas 2010 in order to maintain our 'thought leadership' image". Instead picture a talented engineer producing a prototype of the Magic Trackpad from some parts that happened to be lying around and saying "hey guys, I took the trackpad out of the Macbook and made it standalone - do you think there's some mileage in this?"

Incidentally, if you've not seen the Magic Trackpad already, here's a video from Apple (from the OS X System Preferences control panel) that works through the built-in gestures...  This in itself is pretty neat, but it gets even better if you use something like Andreas Hegenberg's BetterTouchTool freeware to add your own custom gestures and actions. After a stint on the Magic Trackpad, an old style mouse will probably seem rather quaint, but also somewhat limited and constraining. Of course I'd have to note here that free and open source software like BetterTouchTool (BTT is free but not open source) is another good example of people acting on their intrinsic motivations, in some cases profitably. Eric Raymond has some interesting thoughts on the role of patronage, which are quite relevant here.

Of course we can't talk about Apple without keeping in mind that they have a charismatic leader par excellence in the form of Steve Jobs. Is it possible to have one of these new-style organizations without an exceptional leader? There may be a clue here in that Google has three... :-) To get an idea about what drives Steve Jobs, his strength of character and his personal presence, watch the commencement (graduation) address he gave at Stanford in 2005:

Now let's move on to look at what happens when developments that are happening at Internet speed collide with the more sedate world of academia.

One of the most interesting developments over the last couple of years has been the explosion of interest in Linked Data, which is all about opening up data sets (such as MP's expenses) and figuring out how to create mashups by combining data from different sources. The information in question can range from common office document formats such as Excel spreadsheets through to SPARQL targets and the Semantic Web.

Open University lecturer Tony Hirst, aka @psychemedia is a leading figure in this movement, frequently invited to conferences and workshops to speak about (and demonstrate) its potential. Tony's work is widely cited, notably by the curators of and The Guardian's Open Platform. Returning to our theme of intrinsic motivation, Tony's day job is as a robotics lecturer - his mashup activities could easily be thought of as moonlighting. Tony has no formal peer reviewed academic publications relating to his work on Internet technologies, in spite of being an internationally recognised authority in his field. His work is highly interactive and difficult to appreciate offline. This video will give you a flavour of it:

For me this raises some interesting questions around how to measure concepts like "impact" and "significance" in the new world that we find ourselves in. It is clear that Tony has made a huge contribution to the area by pushing the technologies to their very limits, illustrating how data from disparate sources can be brought together to create a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts, and exposing the cracks wherever they show.

So how would your organization recognize and reward (or even attempt to "manage"!) someone like Tony? Of course we can't all be Google, but a useful first step is undoubtedly some level of self-awareness of the power of intrinsic motivation and the results that it can deliver.

And what are the implications for the academic community when the old mechanisms of peer reviewed research publications, citations etc start to break down? How do we figure out someone's impact and significance?

Perhaps this is the future... :-)

Martin Hamilton

Martin Hamilton works for Jisc in London as their resident Futurist.