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This week sees the UK publication of Wikinomics, a book by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams first
published in the US last December. The main idea in Wikinomics is that firms may in the future be
able to benefit from collaboration on a mass scale, which they predict "is
set to change every institution in society".
We have seen such predictions before, and the business books
market is awash with gurus selling their own pet theory. Tapscott and Williams
do, however, have some real-world examples to pull out of the hat in support of
Many people will already know the story behind the Linux operating system, but
there are other lesser-known examples in more traditional sectors. Tapscott and
Williams describe how gold mining company Goldcorp used collaboration on a mass
scale – and also released a considerable amount of intellectual property – to
solve its intractable gold exploration problems. The result, apparently, was
way more gold than they expected and a major increase in share price.
Around 18 months ago, I conducted some research for IBF that
concluded that wikis were proving to be a particularly useful tool within some
large organisations, with some firms studied already seeing significant benefit
from their use, albeit still within fairly narrow areas of application. I can’t
say I was surprised: at around the same time, an organisation that I help to
run had already been using wikis for some time for developing and organizing
all kinds of internal and external information, and the benefits were quite
clear to me – although it has to be said we’d tried various wiki platforms in
search of wiki perfection.
What Tapscott and Williams bring out is the role played not
just by mass scale, but by some degree of permeability of the organisation. The
answers in the case of Goldcorp came not from within, but by putting ideas
generated from a wide spectrum of individuals who were not within the
organisation together with what the organisation knew, to create more than a
sum of the parts.
This raises a whole series of issues, such as when we should
document things that might previously not have been documented, to the nature
of intellectual property and its relationship to the organisation. It has often
been assumed that it is what is not documented or generally known that is
valuable information. And it is generally assumed that everything the
organisation knows needs to be highly protected behind layers of secrecy (and
legal protection). But the result is often that people within an organisation who would benefit from certain information do not have access to it.
In some areas of business and the professions, controlled
sharing with rivals as well as colleagues is becoming more common. The
Wall Street Journal last week reported on
Sermo, a networking site used by medical professionals to, for example,
help with diagnoses. As yet, there are few such specialized networking sites,
with experts and professionals in many fields still reliant on mailing lists
and other earlier generation tools to conduct this dialogue. This is likely to
change as social tools become more integrated and easier to use, and hence more
useful and used.