Sunday, March 25, 2007


In a world of MySpace, Second Life, and Wikipedia, it's kinda hard not to notice a lot of swirl and remixing going on. This very blog is an example (not a very large one, I admit) of the impressive changes in networking and communicating info that are exploding around us. The idea of using the Internet to open new channels for exploring, testing, reworking how we do things may not have yet hit Gutenberg stage, but it's done a hell of a lot more than CBs did. (And if you have to ask what a CB is, you've proven my point . . . and I want you to leave the room right now.)

With such change, the temptation for existing organizations, ways of thought, and the people who inhabit both is to hunker down and resist. Standard operating procedures, chains of command, hierarchical structures are all threatened whenever new technologies are swarming the gates. And, indeed, we've seen companies and corporations doing as much to repel the new "wiki"-world as to embrace it.

That's the essential theme of Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams--the tension between the existing order in business and the new swirling, centerless, topless possibilities of internetworking within and without traditional orgs, the "art and science" of peer production. Some businesses, they say, have already sprung up based on the new lines, and others have hopped on board, to their success and advantage. Far too many, in the authors' view, have failed to do so and risk being swept away as the proverbial world whizzes by them. And, in chapter after chapter, they spell out why and how.

Wikinomics is based on four principles, Tapscott and Williams tell us: openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally, and they helpfully provide examples of each. They all tie into a philosophy of massive, networked collaboration. No copyrights, patents or entitled privilege here. You solve problems by inviting networked partnerships, like the famous "open source" development of Linux. The product generally is the "ideagoras," a growing and evolving global marketplace of ideas and inventions shared and expanded to take advantage of what all participants have to offer. The result? New orgs, ways of working, necessary skills, a new, more creative and less hierarchical world.

Okay, for those of us who like stable jobs and skill sets, this doesn't make us think "utopia" that the authors fear might be derailed by stubborn resistance of established (and blind) powerbases unable to understand the genius here. (However, since in the music industry, the latter roles are played by some truly unlikeable folks, fighting Napster et al., this sort of balances that possible job loss thing.) And, while the examples for the most part are cool and thought-provoking, this all has the "we'll all buy groceries online" dot-com kind of patina on it. So, let's not get carried away here yet. Too much of this ignores politics and power or believes the wonderfulness of wikiworld will pull it through. Potentials for new collaborations and their results are impressive, yes, but it's likely this will be a supplement to, not a replacement for, the powers-that-be, may be eventually assimilating or being assimilated into the other. (Ready to eat my words, though, if all industries go the music route and risk losing everything to whoever does put it together.)

What interested me here most was the overall lack of application to government organizations. Granted, it's a business book, but is there no overlap? I think there is. Let's look at a normally hierarchical gov org such as a corrections department (you could think "school district" or "public hospital" if you prefer). Problems of top-down direction, communications, record-keeping and transfer, just goal sharing itself are well known in most DOCs. So why not recommend the wikinomics principles for these frequently ineffective bureaucracies?

What might that mean in practice? How about a blog that disseminated not only department news and policies but the latest research and experience on correctional management or programs? Prison staff and parole and probation staff sometimes end up talking different languages or using the same terms for different concepts? Isn't that perfect for a DOC-wikipedia? The org too big for people to know each other anymore at anything but top levels? Staff don't know who to talk to to find info or how something's done? Just want everyone to feel part of the same common org, purpose, mission? MySpace anyone?

Tapscott and Williams are clearly onto something, for government as well as for business. The politics of power still has to play out, and their visions of wiki-greatness are likely to go unfulfilled as power and inertia work their magic. But even half a loaf here will be something amazing. It already is. The future is just not what it used to be, and reading this book will show you where it might go. And they thoughtfully left their final chapter blank for you to contribute to the journey (through their website).

What are you waiting for?