Outsiders And Insiders

Philip Morgan

I like this blog generally, but found this piece particularly interesting: https://www.newthingsunderthesun.com/pub/7dh7t8uu

It speaks to the challenges of being an outsider, and what makes being an insider valuable, and why people want to hold on to insider status. A few quotes from the aforelinked piece will illustrate:

The upshot of all this work is that it’s quite expensive to get researchers to change their research focus. In general, Myers estimates getting one more scientist to apply (i.e., getting one whose research is typically more dissimilar than any of the current applicants, but more similar than those who didn’t apply) requires increasing the size of the grant by 40% or nearly half a million dollars over the life of a grant!

The second challenge is that, even if there is a critical mass of scientists working on the topic, it may be hard for outsiders to make a significant contribution. That might make outsiders reluctant to join a field, and hence slow its growth. We have a few pieces of evidence that this is the case.

Arts and Fleming (2018) provides some additional evidence on the difficulty of outsiders making major intellectual contributions, but among inventors instead of academics. As a simple measure of inventors entering new fields, they look at patents that are given a technology classification that has never been given to the inventor’s previous patents.

Technology creates disruption, and disruption creates openings for outsiders. That's why I'm often bullish on the prospects of indie consultants who are some kind of outsider to the market they've decided to focus on.

There are, however, markets that can be inhospitable to outsiders. I think of these as "closed systems". There's no such thing as a truly closed system that exchanges nothing with what lies outside itself, but there are environments with lots of centralized ownership and control. While science doesn't have a single central controlling authority, it behaves more like a closed system than an open one.

Some time ago, for The Positioning And Specialization Course, I wrote up a few diagnostic questions to help folks identify a closed system. I'll paste them here:

  • Who would get pissed off if you started a new conference serving the space?
    • Nobody: probably an open system
    • Somebody "important": probably a closed system
  • Where does significant, even disruptive, change come from?
    • Within and without the system: probably an open system
    • Mostly outside the system: probably a closed system
  • Is licensing or certification required
    • No/optional/competing certifications: probably an open system
    • Yes: probably a closed system
  • What creates pedigree?
    • Ideas, innovation, courage, persistence, boldness: probably an open system
    • Relationships, past experience/success within the system, education at the "right" institution(s): probably a closed system

Some folks really thrive in a closed system. Closed systems aren't automatically better or worse than open systems, just different.

I find the book Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos interesting both as a case study in what thought leadership looks like and as a story about what innovation within in the semi-closed system of science requires in terms of persistence and risking of social capital.