The agility at which facebook can make changes is something I can admire. In creating company this big, facebook is not going to please everyone, but led by Mark Zuckerberg who at times is faulted for his naivete because of his young age – he has optimism and energy on his side. As a line in the Social Network movie says “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Facebook, in my mind, represents a new breed of consumer-driven organization who must continually adapt at a very high rate of change to satisfy their stakeholders. I realize that arguments have been made that facebook changes are made for the sake of revenue and to maximize advertising, etc and not for the sake of customers. That is most likely true. However, even with that argument, I think that facebook must make changes that will not completely upset its customer base as revenue would then suffer. Consider the following quotes attributed to another brilliant innovator, Steve Jobs:

  • “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.”
  • “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

Apple and Facebook, led by these two innovators are probably rare companies in that they are able to define their products and services to whatever visions they have set, making mistakes along the way, yet are able to survive and even thrive.

As a facebook user, I sometimes get annoyed with the changes. Specifically with the latest ones released yesterday which makes the site looks very cluttered with all the different functions I can’t even name. It’s beginning to remind me of the cluttered myspace. However, as someone who is in a technology leadership position at a university, I sometimes envy how facebook can seemingly introduce changes overnight without having to go through committee approvals. This is not to say that the need for approval process and committees are all bad given security, policy and legal constraints that must be considered when introducing new technologies like social media. It is those instances when “paralysis by over analysis” cripple a project that bothers me a lot. Finding balance between making sure we are not introducing high risk but at the same time have the room to innovate is a challenge.

One of the guiding principles I have applied in my career is from a mentor I admire so much, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs  at UCSB – Dr. Michael Young. He told me way back when I was just starting my career that “I’d rather have you continually moving forward, making mistakes along the way, than stagnate.

One of the challenges I face at work (and life) is determining when to apply the principle of  “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”.  Looking back at what I have been able to accomplish throughout the years as a developer dating back to 1998 with our university’s campus calendar of events to the numerous applications I’ve built after, I wonder how much of it I would have even built if I had to ask for permission and if I had to prove the value of every single one of them every single time.

Do you agree/disagree with the idea that universities can learn from facebook or are we just different organizational models with different goals, stakeholders and customers?