Businesses using Web 2.0 should embrace mass collaboration

In 2006, author and technology think-tank head Don Tapscott teamed up with Anthony D. Williams to write Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (Penguin Group), a book about the Web 2.0 economy that is still among the top-selling titles on in categories such as telecommunications, the Internet and communication skills.

Now Tapscott and Williams have written two new chapters that offer business executives tips on how to embark upon mass collaboration efforts; the additions are included in a new version of the book that was released last Thursday.

Tapscott, who is CEO of Toronto-based New Paradigm, spoke recently with Computerworld about the challenges of executing upon mass collaboration strategies in the corporate world.

How did you come up with the title Wikinomics? Was that itself an example of mass collaboration? The subtitles were; the title came out of a brainstorm [session] at New Paradigm.

It occurred to me that a wiki wasn’t just a piece of software but had become a metaphor for new collaboration that could occur on a phenomenal scale.

In the beginning of the book, you cite an example of how Goldcorp used an open-source-type model to invite geologists and others to help it identify possible locations to mine for gold on its properties in Canada.

But for other organizations, what are the common roadblocks they encounter or create for themselves that prevent them from embarking on similar initiatives? The big one is that we fear what we don’t know and understand.

For any senior executive to decide to move forward on this, personal use is a precondition.

So unless a senior executive decided to edit a Wikipedia page, or has spent time on Facebook with their kid, or has tagged a photo on Flickr, they have no idea why this new Web is different than the Web of the dot-com era.

People still think the Internet is about Web sites and stickiness and clicks and page views. But that was the old Internet of 12 years ago. We banned the term “Web sites” [within New Paradigm]; now we have communities.

The other thing is that many people mistakenly believe this is about social networking and hooking up online, or creating a gardening community, or putting a video on YouTube.

But all of that is so 2006. This is a new mode of production. There’s a profound change in the ways that we orchestrate capabilities to create goods and services and to innovate. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say it’s the biggest change in a century to the corporation.

[But] the principles of wikinomics are kind of counterintuitive. This guy at Goldcorp is my neighbor. The conventional wisdom is to work inside your boundaries.

What he “should’ve done” is fired his head of geology and gotten better talent. But he didn’t do that — he wondered who his peers are.

And the best submissions [of potential mining sites] didn’t come from geologists but from mathematicians and consultants and military officers. And he gave away his intellectual property.

That’s unheard of. Why would you do that? Well, IBM gave away hundreds of millions of dollars of IP with Linux, and it was one of the best moves made in a decade. The market value of [Goldcorp] went from $90 million to $10 billion, and a lot of it came down to trust.

We have a culture of control rather than a culture of enablement in our companies. We seek to manage risk by being opaque and by trying to have tight controls. [But] look at the economy: It’s in the tank.

If we had shared some of these risk models and had transparency and financial models that were shared, maybe a rising tide would have lifted all boats and we’d compete on a different level, but the economy wouldn’t be a mess.

All these principles go against the grain; they don’t feel right to most of these executives. But $9 million worth of research tells me these are the axes that successful 21st-century companies will be built with.

So, how can corporate executives work through the issues that you just cited? With the new edition of Wikinomics, we added two chapters at the end on what you need to do to move forward.

One of the things we do at New Paradigm is offer a wiki workshop. This is the use of wikis, blogs, social networks, tags, RSS, etc., within the boundaries of a company. You’ve got 80 million young people coming into the workforce, and they as high school and university students have at their fingertips more powerful communications tools than exist in corporate America. They’re itching to go.

Why not stick your saddle on that horse instead of pounding your head against the wall with someone who thinks that Facebook should be banned by a company. It’s bizarre — companies are doing the exact opposite of what they should be doing. It’s reminiscent of companies banning IM five years ago.

How is mass collaboration playing out in the pharmaceutical industry, where competition among the heavyweight companies to launch new drugs is so fierce? It’s a great case in point.

There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance among pharmaceutical executives these days. In the biotechnology industry, there’s the Human Genome Project, where everyone is placing [intellectual property] in the commons so that a rising tide will lift all boats.

But in pharma, they have this huge struggle with IP, with generic drugs and knock-offs. It’s a real yin-yang [scenario] that’s going on. The pharmaceutical industry, by outsourcing drug trials, is moving forward with sharing IP. But they haven’t taken the next step for mass collaboration.

If you reach Stage IV in a drug trial, what a great opportunity to use the Web to see what’s going on.

Deep down, I can’t believe that executives would be so thoughtless and cynical about sharing information. Why not have a different model so that instead of doing all this R&D yourselves and producing a drug and using broadcast media to push it out into the market, you apply collaboration throughout the entire process?

You can share IP with your competitors, and ultimately you tap into “ideagoras” [i.e., a marketplace of ideas]. It’s a great example of an industry that can reinvent itself using this model.

But for companies that do embrace the notion of mass collaboration, what steps do they need to take to protect their own intellectual property? For every company, the starting point shouldn’t be, “How do we protect our IP?”

The starting point should be, “How do we innovate?” IBM doesn’t expect to own its primary operating system, which now is Linux. Every one of us has a mutual fund that includes a portfolio of stocks: high tech, U.S., Asian, etc.

Every company needs a portfolio of intellectual property — some that it protects, some that it shares within its business Web and some that it places in the commons, like the biotech companies did around the Human Genome Project.

If you approach it as protecting your IP from the beginning, you’ll end up like the record industry and have your business obliterated.

The industry that brought you Elvis and the Beatles is now suing its customers and collapsing.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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