Thursday, January 10, 2008

Wikinomics: a review

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything is a full-throated call to action for senior managers. The authors, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, argue that the new technologies of the web, and the new forms of production that they engender, will change the nature of the corporation, at least as it has traditionally been conceived. This is not really a book for researchers: it’s tone is evangelistic, and the authors end almost every chapter with a bullet list-like set of points which they intend as guidelines for the senior manager intent on changing the way her company works. ( An example (from page 176): “Use industry-university partnerships to shake up product road maps”, “Make sure the collaboration is win-win”, etc.)

Nevertheless, the book is interesting and a more than brief summary may be in order. The modern corporation today has a strongly demarcated boundary, a clear place that separates the people (and materials, and assets) “within” from those “without”. Of course, the modern corporation is not a monolith — there is a vast confusing network of business partners, subsidiaries, and the like, but the boundary is still clear, at least for its employees (Sometimes, for an employee, this boundary may even be that of her own group) . The book’s central thesis is that this boundary needs to be made porous; that, in fact, this is an inevitable change and that companies need to do this or perish. The point is made in starkly economic terms for corporations; the authors are not arguing for the adoption of “peer production” because it enhances human freedom or because it decentralizes the production of information (as Yochai Benkler does in his “The Wealth of Networks“, although his book is not pitched to corporations) but because this is necessary for both, innovation and growth and perhaps, even survival. Whether this is true or not, it is definitely a good rhetorical strategy to adopt, particularly by those who wish to adopt new methods of information production into the modern enterprise, and run into the usual barriers (resistance to change, inertia, etc).

The authors spend seven chapters of the book detailing seven ways in which companies can evolve and how they can harness the new technologies of communication and production now at their disposal.

(1) The first is to harness the power of, what Yochai Benkler has called, “peer production” (also see here). Peer production, in this case, refers to the way in which, the operating system, Linux and Wikipedia were created: by a bunch of distributed users who self-organized (i.e. without any command-and-control) via some communication channels (in this case, the web). The authors point to the example of IBM, which let its employees wade into the open-source community (as developers for Linux and other open-source programs) and integrated several open-source applications into its own proprietary products.

(2) The second, is what the authors call “Ideagoras”: a market place for ideas. Using the example of Goldcorp CEO Rob McEwen who opened up the company’s geological data to the public, which then lead to the discovery of more gold deposits (the company’s in-house experts had been unable to pinpoint to anything), the authors propose that by utilizing expertise outside their boundaries, corporations stand to gain more than they think. “Idea Markets” are platforms such as Innocentive and yet2 , where corporations (or people) can post “questions in search of answers” or “answers in search of questions”. In a world where there are a vast number of under-utilized ideas, this seems to make perfect sense.

(3) The third, is to view consumers as “prosumers” (the authors have a thing for inventing bad names) and to sell, instead of finished products, something more like “hackable” products. This means providing things like APIs and manuals (but systematically, and making it a core part of the product) so that users can pro-actively modify their products, and then (perhaps) share them with other users. creating, in the process, a rich community of interacting users. Here the example is Lego Mindstorms, with its hive of users/hackers, who are forever tinkering with the product, and sharing the results with the community at large.

(4) The fourth, which they call “The New Alexandrians” looks into the story of the sequencing of the human genome. This could have been done by each company staking a claim to some sequence of the genome (since a court ruling had effectively made sequences patentable). Instead companies started releasing sequences that they discovered into the public domain, thereby creating a huge database which could be used by all researchers, anywhere in the world. This was, and is, the key to the advances in the field and could arguably lead to some significant advances in the treatment of diseases. The lesson for corporations here, the authors argue, is that research can be done, perhaps better in collaboration with those outside their own boundaries. They point to business-university research collaborations as something most companies should do more of — an example being Intel’s Open University Network, which gives IP rights to all parties involved in the research.

(5) Fifth: Platforms for participation. This is the most interesting chapter of the book, and I think, the most relevant for our work. The authors take up, what we today call “mashups”. Mashups are possible, because companies like Google and Amazon are offering “services” instead of portals, which can then be used by other programmers/companies. By opening up their services (in the form of open APIs), corporations such as Google are effectively harnessing a wide range of programmers who are not technically Google employees. This gives Google and Amazon visibility and increases the value of their services and increases the chances of their usage. More corporations need to follow this “open API” system.

(6) Sixth, “the collaborative shop floor” gives the authors’ take on how peer production can influence manufacturing. The examples are Boeing and car manufacturers like BMW, which rely on a surprising amount of distributed production and allow their suppliers to make significant changes into the actual product.

(7) Seventh and last, the workplace of the future, which the authors call “the wiki workplace”. How will the adoption of new forms of web-based communication (IM, chat, VoIP, email, wikis, blogs etc) affect the nature of collaboration in the workplace? A truly interesting example is Geeksquad, now a part of BestBuy. One of the ways in which the squad members kept in touch with each other is though MMOLGs (Massive Multi-Player Online Games). This is not by design, it just turned out to be so. The significant thing is that once this was discovered, the company actually encouraged it with even its owner Robert Stephens joining in from time to time. Bestbuy itself is engaged in some organizational changes: for e.g. allowing employees who actually come into contact with customers to contribute to the company’s strategy, giving significant responsibility to individual stores to design their displays, etc. All of these involve the use of new forms of communication such as wikis and blogs — hence the “wiki workplace”. The authors encourage more self-organization within the enterprise, with employees forming groups and disbanding when the task is done, rather than the normal way in which offices are organized: into rigid teams and sub-teams. While this is easier said than done, it can only be accomplished by workplace communication mechanisms that encourage this form of social self-organization.

In the next post I will try and list some points that could be potentially useful in the design of collaborative applications for the enterprise.