I’ve been compelled by a new business relationship to read “Wikinomics” by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, a book I had no intention of ever reading. Its basic premise – that collaboration will supplement competition as the major engine of wealth in the world – has always struck me as a little suspicious. It reminds me of the so-called “new economy” of the ‘nineties, and we all know what happened to that.
Now that I’m actually reading the book, I’m convinced these two authors are on to something. Let’s take a step back and review the basics.
For starters, a wiki is a digital document that anybody can edit. The most well-known example is the Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. And because it’s a wiki, you could log on right now to www.wikipedia.com and change the article on chlorophyll, for example. Well, there are a few rules, but basically it’s a self-policing document. And it’s a pretty good source of information.
If you apply this anybody-can-edit-it idea to computer technology, you get Linux – a free operating system that now competes with Windows. Linux was initially developed by one programmer, but he didn’t try to sell it. Instead, he put it on the web and invited anybody who felt like it to contribute by making improvements. Today, Linux is a reliable piece of software that is used by the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies at least to some extent.
It’s easy to see how the wiki concept can apply to intellectual property that can be digitized and edited online. But physical objects? They’re a different story. Or are they?
“Wikinomics” opens with the amazing story of Rob McEwen, a mutual fund manager who found himself in charge of a Toronto mining company whose single gold mine appeared to be mined out. The company’s geologists were convinced there was gold in other parts of the mine, but they couldn’t find it, even after they spent $10 million looking. Desperate for results, McEwen did something incredible: He published all the company’s geological data going back to the mid-twentieth century, and invited anybody to suggest likely locations for the gold he believed was still there, in return for a cash prize if gold was discovered.
This was widely perceived as crazy behavior. It was as if the top executives at Coca Cola decided to published the recipe for Coke Classic and ask teenagers to suggest improvements. But, to make a long story short, the ploy was successful, and the $100 million company is now a $9 billion company.
So, this somewhat strange, Silicon Valley-tinted idea about openness, sharing, etc. does have possibilities in the real world.
In fact, I’m convinced that some bright individuals are going to exploit it successfully – in ways I can’t imagine. But here’s a stab in the dark. What if a group of ten or twenty job shops who were in competition banded together to form a buying collaborative? With the Internet, that would be easy to do, and they would increase their buying power, – and therefore, their negotiating power – enormously. Raw materials costs would go down, they would all become more profitable, and they could still compete with one another in other areas.
I’m not sure this would actually work. As I said, it’s a stab in the dark. But collaboration is a powerful force, and its role in manufacturing may be on the upswing.
One last note: I do recommend the book, but be prepared for a large dose of over-the-top enthusiasm.