Innovation in Social Work: Where Does it Come From?

As social workers, we often confront complex situations. And we are all about developing solutions and strategies for change. In doing so we draw on our past experience, research, the experience of colleagues, and best practices. But sometimes we come up short and find we need new ideas–we find that we need to innovate.

What is innovation, anyway? Merriam Webster defines it as “a new idea, device, or method” or “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about innovation in social work, wondering how we get and develop our new ideas. Maybe we need to do something new to deal with a practice or policy situation we’ve never encountered before, or with a radically-changing environment. Or perhaps we just think our work needs a new approach to keep it fresh, or to increase our capacity to engage our client systems. Regardless, innovation is a part of what we do in our work, at least occasionally. If it never shows up in our work, it’s probably not a good sign!

Where My Ideas Come From

My biggest source of innovation is reading and listening to what others are doing, especially others who are only “weakly” connected to me and my day-to-day work. I build on the principle of “weak ties,” that is the theory that our best sources of new strategic information come, not from our closest relationships, but from those people with whom we have only sporadic contact (see Innovation, Strategic Networks & Social Media: Or Why I’m Here for a discussion of this principle). In addition, I remember what I learned from a paper I wrote about innovation in my doctoral program: if you’re looking for new ideas, read outside your field.

What that means, in practice, is that I try to monitor content outside of social work through Twitter, that is, following thought leaders and organizations that are not social work related. I “clip” the ideas that strike me as interesting, read them, tag them as “ideas,” and store them in a program called Evernote.

This process allows me to both monitor trends and to see what others have been doing. When I have a chance, I might even write the ideas up on my blog, or in one of the internet-based social work communities that I’m in and see what others have to say about what I’ve come across. Discussing ideas with colleagues can be a really fun, creative process.

Sometimes reading outside my field means looking at another aspect of social work practice. For example, when I was working in addiction treatment settings I tried to stay abreast of the major developments in mental health, in addition to addictions.

I’ve also found new ideas by listening carefully to my clients — several of my forays into new technology (e.g., blogging, Second Life) were by inspired by hearing what my clients were doing. I was intrigued by what I heard (and didn’t quite understand what they were talking about), and so I decided I needed to explore the new technologies on my own.

The result of such exploration resulted in many new innovations in both my teaching and practice. For example, around 2004, I set up a protected blogging community for my EMDR class: all students had to complete a weekly blog entry about how they were applying the class content. Interestingly, that was the only year that 100% of the class (as opposed to the typical 70%) actually used EMDR with their clients by the end of the semester.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

So you’ve read what I do — I would love to hear how you get your new ideas. I have no doubt that there are many pathways to innovation. Please take a moment to share, in the comments, what works for you to generate new ideas, and perhaps, an example of a time that you did so.

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Nancy Smyth

Nancy J. Smyth, PhD, MSW, LCSW is professor and at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, as well as a licensed clinical social worker. She has over 30 years experience in social work, primarily in the areas of trauma and addictions. She's an occasional blogger interested in the human connections made in digital environments. technology and social work, and the impact of technology on our identities, families and society. View all posts by Nancy Smyth

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