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Why You Should Collaborate

Why You Should Collaborate

In an exclusive interview, futurist Don Tapscott explains the implications of online collaboration and how innovation via the Internet will change the CIO role

The best ideas for your business might come from someone who doesn't even work for you. That's the contention made by author and consultant Don Tapscott in his newest book, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Tapscott, along with co-author Anthony Williams (who teaches at the London School of Economics), believes that the pervasiveness of the Internet will usher in an era where companies will lower their proprietary barriers and collaborate to foster greater innovation. As people employ instant messaging, blogs, wikis and other Web-based applications to communicate and develop ideas, Tapscott believes the Internet will become a platform on which companies will be forced to seek external talent in order to solve their greatest challenges.

With its focus on the Internet as a business development platform, Wikinomics adds to the growing discussion about the value and process of mass collaboration. There is, for instance, Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia launched in 2001, from which the book draws its name. Wikipedia allows its users to post and edit data on a variety of topics, but the resource — and its susceptibility to vandalism and tampering — has stirred objections from academics and media critics who question its accuracy. The idea that the collective experience of large groups can trump that of individual experts became popularized by James Surowiecki's 2004 best-seller, The Wisdom of Crowds. Meanwhile, in October 2006, MIT launched its Centre for Collective Intelligence in order to study the dynamics of collaboration and the tools to facilitate it. (The centre's advisers include Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Alph Bingham, founder of Innocentive, a Web site that allows companies to post R&D problems and reward anyone who posts a winning solution.)

In a wide-ranging interview, Tapscott discusses his theory of Wiki­nomics and what it means for the IT and business strategy.

CIO: Can you tell us what you mean by Wikinomics as a business theory? And what would be a good example of Wiki­nomics at work in the business world?

Don Tapscott: Wikinomics is the theory and practice of harnessing mass collaboration for growth and for innovation. All of this isn't going to happen outside the boundaries of the corporation. Let me tell you a story to make the point.

I know this guy named Rob McEwen. He's my neighbour. He ran a gold mine for several years and was ready to shut the whole company down because his geologists could not tell him if there was gold on the company's property, and where it was, or how much there was.

But he's a curious guy and he's a member of the Young Presidents' Organization. And he goes to a YPO meeting at MIT and learns about this thing called the Linux operating system [and about open-source development]. He comes back from that meeting and wonders: If my guys don't know where the gold is, maybe somebody else does.

Rob does a radical thing. He publishes his geological data on the Web, which is unheard of in any mineral mining related industry. In the gold mining industry, your most secret resource is your geological data. It's kept in safes and high-security computer systems. Rob holds a contest called The Gold Corp Challenge, with half a million dollars in prize money.

He gets 77 submissions from around the world, using techniques that he's never heard of. And it's not just geologists. You've got computer scientists and mathematicians and computer graphics people. It's a half a million dollar investment and he finds over $US3 billion dollars' worth of gold. His market value goes from $US90 million dollars to $US10 billion dollars, and he's a happy camper.

So there's a clear example of where opening up sensitive company information had demonstrable ROI. But will that always be the case? What about protecting intellectual property?

If the choice is protecting IP versus innovation, you've got to default to innovation. You can't win by living off your morals in this new global economy. Rob McEwen went with innovation. You've got to innovate or die. And that means you need to think differently about intellectual property. I'm not suggesting you open up the kimono on everything. But increasingly, if you're going to peer produce things and mass collaborate, if you're going to get more deeply involved in collaborating on precompetitive research, then you need a portfolio of IP — some that you own and some that you share.

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