Listen to this article
This was one of six books shortlisted for the 2007 FT/Golman Sachs business book of the year award. Read the shortlist, plus synopses, reviews and judges comments. You can also vote on the best business book ever, as selected by top CEOs and other experts.
Call them the “weapons of mass collaboration.” New low-cost collaborative infrastructures—from free Internet telephony to open-source software to global outsourcing platforms—allow thousands upon thousands of individuals and small producers to co-create products, access markets, and delight customers in ways that only large corporations could manage in the past. This is giving rise to new collaborative capabilities and business models that will empower the prepared firm and destroy those that fail to adjust. The upheaval occurring right now in media and entertainment provides an early example of how mass collaboration is turning the economy upside down. Once a bastion of “professionalism,” credentialed knowledge producers share the stage with “amateur” creators who are disrupting every activity they touch. Tens of millions of people share their news, information, and views in the blogosphere, a self-organized network of over 50 million personal commentary sites that are updated every second of the day.2 Some of the largest weblogs (or blogs for short) receive a quarter of a million daily visitors,3 rivaling some daily newspapers. Now audioblogs, podcasts, and mobile photo blogs are adding to a dynamic, up-to-the-minute stream of person-to-person news and information delivered free over the Web.–
Individuals now share knowledge, computing power, bandwidth, and other resources to create a wide array of free and open-source goods and services that anyone can use or modify. What’s more, people can contribute to the “digital commons” at very little cost to themselves, which makes collective action much more attractive. Indeed, peer production is a very social activity. All one needs is a computer, a network connection, and a bright spark of initiative and creativity to join in the economy. These new collaborations will not only serve commercial interests, they will help people do public-spirited things like cure genetic diseases, predict global climate change, and find new planets and stars. Researchers at Olson Laboratory, for example, use a massive supercomputer to evaluate drug candidates that might one day cure AIDS. This is no ordinary supercomputer, however. Their FightAIDS@home initiative is part of the World Community Grid, a global network where millions of individual computer users donate their spare computing power via the Internet to form one of the world’ most powerful computing platforms.
These changes, among others, are ushering us toward a world where knowledge, power, and productive capability will be more dispersed than at any time in our history—a world where value creation will be fast, fluid, and persistently disruptive. A world where only the connected will survive. A power shift is underway, and a tough new business rule is emerging: Harness the new collaboration or perish. Those who fail to grasp this will find themselves ever more isolated—cut off from the networks that are sharing, adapting, and updating knowledge to create value.
This might sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. Consider some additional ways ordinary citizens can now participate in the global body économiqe. Rather than just read a book you can write one. Just log on to Wikipedia—a collaboratively created encyclopedia, owned by no one and authored by tens of thousands of enthusiasts. With five full-time employees, it is ten times bigger than Encyclopedia Britannica and roughly the same in accuracy.4 It runs on a wiki, software that enables users to edit the content of Web pages. Despite the risks inherent in an open encyclopedia in which everyone can add their views, and constant battles with detractors and saboteurs, Wikipedia continues to grow rapidly in scope, quality, and traffic. The English-language version has more than a million entries, and there are ninety-two sister sites in languages ranging from Polish and Japanese to Hebrew and Catalan.
Or perhaps your thing is chemistry. Indeed, if you’re a retired, unemployed, or aspiring chemist, Procter & Gamble needs your help. The pace of innovation has doubled in its industry in the past five years alone, and now its army of 7,500 researchers is no longer enough to sustain its lead. Rather than hire more researchers, CEO A. G. Lafley instructed business unit leaders to source 50 percent of their new product and service ideas from outside the company. Now you can work for P&G without being on their payroll. Just register on the InnoCentive network where you and ninety thousand other scientists around the world can help solve tough R&D problems for a cash reward. InnoCentive is only one of many revolutionary marketplaces matching scientists to R&D challenges presented by companies in search of innovation. P&G and thousands of other companies look to these marketplaces for ideas, inventions, and uniquely qualified minds that can unlock new value in their markets.
Media buffs are similarly empowered. Rather than consume the TV news, you can now create it, along with thousands of independent citizen journalists that are turning the profession upside down. Tired of the familiar old faces and blather on network news? Turn off your TV, pick up a video camera and some cheap editing software, and create a news feature for Current TV, a new national cable and satellite network created almost entirely by amateur contributors. Though the contributors are unpaid volunteers, the content is surprisingly good. Current TV provides online tutorials for camera operation and storytelling techniques, and their guidelines for creating stories help get participants started. Viewers vote on which stories go to air, so only the most engaging material makes prime time.
Finally, a young person in India, China, Brazil, or any one of a number of emerging Eastern European countries can now do what their parents only dreamed of by joining the global economy on an equal footing. You might be in a call center in Bangalore that takes food orders for a drive-through restaurant in Los Angeles. Or you could find yourself working in Foxconn’s new corporate city in the Schenzen province of China, where a decade ago farmers tilled the land with oxen. Today 180,000 people work, live, learn, and play on Foxconn’s massive high-tech campus, designing and building consumer electronics for teenagers around the globe.
For incumbents in every industry this new cornucopia of participation and collaboration is both exhilarating and alarming. As New Paradigm executive David Ticoll argues, “Not all examples of self-organization are benign, or exploitable. Within a single industry the development of opportunities for self-organized collaboration can be beneficial, neutral, or highly competitive to individual firms, or some combination of at least two of these.” Publishers found this out the hard way. Blogs, wikis, chat rooms, search engines, advertising auctions, peer-to-peer downloading, and personal broadcasting represent new ways to entertain, communicate, and transact. In each instance the traditionally passive buyers of editorial and advertising take active, participatory roles in value creation. Some of these grassroots innovations pose dire threats to existing business models.
Publishers of music, literature, movies, software, and television are like canaries in a coal mine—the first casualties of a revolution that is sweeping across all industries. Many enfeebled titans of the industrial economy feel threatened. Despite heroic efforts to change, they remain shackled by command-and-control legacies. Companies have spent the last three decades remolding their operations to compete in a hypercompetitive economy—ripping costs out of their businesses at every opportunity; trying to become more “customer-friendly”; assembling global production networks; and scattering their bricks-and-mortar R&D organizations around the world.
Now, to great chagrin, industrial-era titans are learning that the real revolution is just getting started. Except this time the competition is no longer their arch industry rivals; it’s the uberconnected, amorphous mass of self-organized individuals that is gripping their economic needs firmly in one hand, and their economic destinies in the other. “We the People” is no longer just a political expression—a hopeful ode to the power of “the masses”; it’s also an apt description of how ordinary people, as employees, consumers, community members, and taxpayers now have the power to innovate and to create value on the global stage.
For smart companies, the rising tide of mass collaboration offers vast opportunity. As the Goldcorp story denotes, even the oldest of old economy industries can harness this revolution to create value in unconventional ways. Companies can reach beyond their walls to sow the seeds of innovation and harvest a bountiful crop. Indeed, firms that cultivate nimble, trust-based relationships with external collaborators are positioned to form vibrant business ecosystems that create value more effectively than hierarchically organized businesses.
For individuals and small producers, this may be the birth of a new era, perhaps even a golden one, on par with the Italian renaissance or the rise of Athenian democracy. Mass collaboration across borders, disciplines, and cultures is at once economical and enjoyable. We can peer produce an operating system, an encyclopedia, the media, a mutual fund, and even physical things like a motorcycle. We are becoming an economy unto ourselves—a vast global network of specialized producers that swap and exchange services for entertainment, sustenance, and learning. A new economic democracy is emerging in which we all have a lead role.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Be alerted on Front page