When a difficult problem rears its head, modern business has a reliable response: Start a contest.
That's what the University of Louisiana Lafayette will be doing April 23-25, when it hosts CajunCodeFest 3.0, a technology festival built around a code competition designed to help find solutions on the theme of "Aging in Place." Cian Robinson, associate director for the Center for Business and Information Technologies at UL Lafayette, said in a press release that the goal is to "seek ways to maintain quality of life as patients grow older and want to live at home."
A secondary theme centers on the Internet of Things, an increasingly catchall phrase that generally means using sensors on as many objects as possible for big data techniques in building a predictive solution to difficult problems. For the biomedical world, it's one of the hottest fields of development, having taken its place next to nanotechnology and affordable care.
The festival has a number of corporate sponsors, each of which is involved in healthcare technology. "CajunCodeFest is an opportunity to pull together innovative people who will generate better health care solutions," David Callecod, president and CEO of Lafayette General Health System, said in the press release.
This is not, of course, the first time the industry has seen a contest used to try to jump-start technology fixes for a difficult set of problems. Netflix famously launched a contest to find algorithms better than the ones in use at the time for suggesting new movies to customers. That contest found a better algorithm, but reality intruded and kept the older solutions in place. Undeterred by the Netflix experience, other foundations, organizations, and corporations have continued to use festivals, competitions, and contests to try to develop products and strategies where their traditional methods have failed.
Why not just hire a contracting firm to develop a solution? Better yet, why not trust in the development group already in place to do its job and give you better solutions? Two factors are in place, and each has both a basis in fact and a number of pitfalls to accompany its use.
The first factor is that humans are, on the whole, fairly competitive creatures. Most of us enjoy games and enjoy being the best at the game we're playing. Taking advantage of that, IT executives can generate a level of enthusiasm and creative thought that's not part of everyday business. The downside is that people trying to win a game can take a very narrow view of the problem and generate, as in the Netflix case, a solution that fulfills the requirements of the context but can't be used in the real world.
The second factor is the assumption that more minds are better than fewer at finding a solution to a problem. The "wisdom of crowds" has become accepted business knowledge and in many cases can result in better information. The downside, though, is that the crowd can't know your business as intimately as your own development teams. Therefore, it can't take advantage of current business policies and practices to the same extent as the insiders.
Within all this is the fact that competitions and contests can be quite exciting and even enjoyable. Are they practical? There, you have to be more skeptical. When you have a difficult problem, or one that's even considered intractable, a competition might well be a great plan for generating new ideas and concepts. Just don't plan on coming out of a furious competition with a complete solution. That's a real recipe for a losing proposition.
Curtis Franklin, Jr.
Executive Editor, Enterprise Efficiency