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.

Innovation, Strategic Networks, and Social Media: Why I’m Here

I suspect that most of my academic colleagues think I’m crazy. They don’t understand social networking, especially not Twitter. And they really don’t understand what I am doing here.

I could explain why I’m here in many different ways and there are certainly many things I get out of social media (including relationships with some wonderful people). But honestly, one of the main reasons I’m here simply comes down to this: ideas, ideas that drive innovation and allow me to forecast trends.

Innovation and Networks

One of the most valuable papers I wrote in graduate school was a paper on innovation for a course on social work administration. I discovered then that if you want to innovate, then read outside of your field. A Harvard Business Review blog post on the Three Networks You Need confirmed the importance of noting trends outside of your familiar domains.

The authors, Linda Hill and Kent Lineback, write that managers/leaders need three kinds of social networks: operational, the people you need in order to do your work; developmental, the people who have helped you grow as a manager and leader, and to whom you turn for advice; and strategic, the people who will help you prepare for tomorrow. In other words, strategic networks are key to anticipating changes: “You need a strategic network because the forces that drive change in your field will probably come from outside your current world.

Strategic Networks, Weak Ties, and Social Media

Hill and Lineback state that strategic networks can often come from “weak ties,” that is, people we don’t know well but connect with infrequently (e.g., 1-2 times a year). However, it’s important to note that the research on which the concept of “weak ties” was based was done in 1970 (see The Strength of Weak Ties by Marc S. Granovetter), which raises the question for me about how social media might influence this concept.

I think that social media can feed strategic networks, even when we don’t have a mutual relationship with the people we are learning from. For example, I follow some people on Twitter that I really don’t interact with, but who post awesome content that covers a wide range of topics. These people are important sources of information about key issues outside of my discipline (social work).

When people tell me they don’t know how I stay abreast of all the information that I know, I confess that I don’t spend a lot of time looking for it. Instead, I look for people “in the know” who I can learn from. I take advantage of the outstanding work that they do discover and curating key content and then just check in with them periodically.

I may develop mutual relationships with some of them. But in some cases, it might simply be that I am learning from what they are sharing. Either way, this content keeps me abreast of trends outside my profession, so I am usually able to anticipate trends well before they “arrive” in my world. I think of them as my virtual key informants.

My biggest struggle with social media is that I want to gravitate toward following the people who are similar to me. For example, over the past year, I have grown to connect with an awesome international network of social workers on Twitter. I have learned a great deal from these colleagues, and I appreciate each and every one of them. So naturally, I want to spend more time interacting with them.

At the same time, I am mindful of how important it is for me to stay connected to my virtual key informants, even though they may not be similar to me or even know that I exist. Because this is often where the inspiration for something totally new originates. I think of these virtual key informants as part of my network of “weak ties”–part of my strategic network– even though, strictly speaking, I don’t have a relationship with most of them.

I would love to hear how others relate (or not) to some of these concepts. Can you connect to the idea of a strategic network? How does social media relate to this idea for you?

How Being an Innovator Will Get You a Job


There is no getting around it, you need to stand out in some way to get a job these days. More importantly, you need to network. Both of those things require you do something different from your peers in order to stand out. Most people will read this and say, “I don’t have time (insert excuse) to be creative in order to get a job.”

Well sit down and listen to a story my friend, a tale of wonder and excitement. After all, the internet is a space of excitement and wonder. Right?

Be Different

What does that mean? It means do things that your peers don’t and do them well. This could mean showing how unrelated skills could transfer into the workplace. Most people have hobbies, and surprisingly enough almost all those hobbies are useful.

First, make a list of the things you can do, and I mean everything, right down to annoying popping noise with your mouth that drives your friends and family nuts.

Second, cross everything off the list you believe is common in your peers’ skill sets.

Now, you have isolated the skills you have to choose from to help make yourself stand out.

Pick a Skill

Now that you have your list of skills, pick one. Does it needs to be applicable to your field? Here is an example:

I know how to use a video camera, I can edit and interview. I used these skills to volunteer for an organization that later hired me for that skill as well as the skills all my peers have. You get the idea?

Your skill needs to be useful to your prospective employer, you need to be skilled enough in it. However, you may want to keep any quirky and weirdness at a healthy dosage.

Let’s say you wanted to be an administrator of a program at a nonprofit that serves the homeless. Your skills are:

  • Cake decorating
  • Computer Programming
  • Yoga

Write down how these skills set translate into how you would use them on the job. It might look something like this.

Cake decorating

  • Aesthetically pleasing food
  • Creative in Art design and graphics
  • Help with visually appealing presentations and event planning
  • Can teach career skills to volunteers and clients

You get the idea right? Now you should do the other two.

Cultivate that skill

This is the hard part! You need to make this skill seem useful to the organization you want to work for. This might involve volunteering for them, attending events they maybe at, running your own events, or just creating a website that showcases the skill.

Then you need to tie it in! Take my own example, I used my skills and volunteered. Soon, people at the job were asking why I didn’t apply for a position there, and I eventually was hired.

By cultivating skills and volunteering, you can show work ethic, create connections, and most of all provide something useful to the organization.

It may not work 100% of the time, but it did work for me and many others I know. Also, using this approach may help you improve yourself while looking for a job. This one goes out to all the new graduates still looking for jobs and those just starting school. Now go out there and do something interesting. You think I am kidding right? I am sure this is your face right now.

If you are stuck, you can post your skills in the comments below, and myself along with the community can help you figure out how to use your skills.

Building a Better Foster Care System

Ever wonder why people are not clamoring to build a better abacus?  Most people wouldn’t know how to use an abacus if they found one.  Some might not even recognize an abacus if they saw one, and some may not even know what an abacus is because they are obsolete.  An abacus is a counting frame or calculating tool which have been long replaced by paper and pencils, calculators, and computers.  Similar to the abacus, there have been several attempts to improve foster care over the years.  Communities, states, federal organizations, ‘think-tanks’, and ‘thought leaders’ have all grappled with improving, re-inventing, re-positioning, and re-envisioning the approach to protecting vulnerable children.

AbacusThe antiquated abacus has gone through similar processes and iterations. They have been enhanced by adding more beads capable of performing more complex calculations with larger numbers; the materials used improved to promote ease of use and reduce the cost of producing; ‘Cadillac’ versions have been produced using rare woods to cater to the elite abacus user.  The beads on a new and improved abacus probably glide more smoothly, the wood less likely to splinter or break.  However, despite all the improvements over time, the abacus is now little more than an object to be studied in history classes, a collectors’ item, or a conversation piece in libraries and living rooms.

Several years ago, a new group was formed, obtained financial backing, and held a series of national meetings aimed at creating a better child welfare system.  They invited a group of people they believed to be critical ‘players’ in the field, either because of their leadership or because they worked in organizations perceived to fill a vital role in the established ‘system’.  There were presentations, round-tables, panels, and other facilitated discussions conducted to create a better child welfare system.  Before and since then, this approach has been replicated at multiple levels, with some of the same faces at the table, some different.  People have been hired, papers have been written, websites have been built, and a variety of on-line communities established to facilitate communication.  At the end of the day, what is ‘produced’ generally looks very much like the foster care system in place before the conversations started.

Does the foster care system await the same fate as the abacus?  I believe so.  In fact, I hope so.  It is well-known that foster care can be traumatic to children and families.  Child abuse and neglect can be extremely damaging to the development of children.  Some research suggests that foster care can be as damaging as the family situations it is meant to ‘treat’ or ‘cure’. Research by Economist Joseph Doyle at MIT Sloan School of Management certainly suggests that foster care is not a beneficial treatment option. (Study: Troubled Homes Better Than Foster Care) Maybe it is time to re-evaluate foster care as a treatment option. Maybe it is time to seek true innovation, find a new cure.

Can child welfare professionals accomplish this feat? I doubt it. There may be great minds working in child welfare, but it takes collaboration, cooperation, cross-system problem-solving, and true innovation to address the complex problems faced by vulnerable children and families. Perhaps it’s time to ‘crowdsource’ child welfare and find new solutions, new strategies, and new treatments.

5 Technologies That Can Help Special Needs Children

You love your children, and want to see them grow and learn. However, when your child has special needs or learning disabilities, it can seem like a constant struggle against the very forces of nature. School programs have made great strides in the last few years towards creating an educational program designed to benefit special needs children, but there is still a long way to go. Thankfully, where other programs or efforts may have failed, technology has succeeded. By using the almost limitless power of modern innovation, you can help your special little person develop independence and reach his or her goals. Here are five technologies that can help special needs children advance.

1. Special keyboards

Sometimes the only thing standing between confusion and understanding is a specially designed keyboard. Computer keyboards and programs designed to help children with physical disabilities, as well as visual and learning disabilities, can improve a child’s ability to communicate, as well as help improve spelling and reading skills. The Teacher’s Institute for Special Education offers specially designed keyboards for a variety of abilities and even takes custom orders.

2. Apps and software

Special applications and school software that makes learning more interesting and accessible are available for all school subjects. Reading, spelling, math, problem solving, and other important skills can be taught using special programs tailored to the specific needs of your child. Video programs that improve attention spans are also available.

ipad3. Mobile smart devices

There’s something about iPads and smartphones that can really capture a child’s attention. In addition to providing access to any number of special apps and programs, smart devices seem perfectly designed for use by special needs children. Those who have difficulty holding books and turning pages can easily swipe a finger across the screen. Best of all, the technology’s capabilities, and the available programs for use with it, are growing every day.

4. Speaking devices

For many special needs children, communication is a big issue. Some children struggle with the confidence to speak out loud, while others want to communicate but are unable to form the right words or sounds. Still others have visual or learning disabilities that prevent them from reading words on a page. Recent advances in speech technology have made it possible for these children to improve their abilities. Those with speech impediments can listen to properly spoken words and better learn to imitate the sounds. Those who have trouble reading can hear the words on the page and make important connections between text and sound.

5. Social media

When it comes to the social aspect of school, many special needs children feel completely left out. This can break your heart as a parent when you see your son or daughter become sad because they can’t enjoy the same relationships as other children. One way to use technology to help make things better is through social media. By connecting with parents of other special needs children, you can set up playdates and plan fun activities for everyone involved. One mom used Facebook to find a prom date for her autistic daughter. Social media can be used in other ways as well, by providing your child with a circle of friends from around the world. It can even help improve language, writing, and other communication skills.

Raising a special needs child can be difficult, but when you see the look of pride light up your child’s face as he or she grasps a new concept for the first time or completes a puzzle that had been difficult, you’ll know that it’s worth it. With technology, you can help your child become something more than they are.

Photo Credit: Steven Moshuris, an autistic student at Belle View Elementary, uses an… (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

Exit mobile version