Wikinomics: What does it Mean for Technical Communication?

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August 2007

Wikinomics: What does it Mean for Technical Communication?

CIDMIconNewsletter Bill Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Wikinomics: How Mass Communication Changes Everything, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams is the theme book of the 9th Annual CIDM Best Practices Conference, occurring on September 17, 18, and 19 near Atlanta, Georgia. More than ever, this year’s conference is about new technologies in information development.

Wikinomics is about collaborating at every level, using the latest communication technology, to build value. The title derives from the Wiki, a well known collaboration tool on the internet made famous by the web site, Wikipedia, a user updated internet encyclopedia. Tapscott and Williams start by describing the changing corporate strategies that we’re all familiar with—geographical dispersal, telecommuting, outsourcing, offshoring, and customer partnering. All of these things have been made possible or much less expensive because of the internet.

Now, for the first time, the cost of communicating over large distances has become less expensive than moving people to work onsite. We still have geographical costs, but these are primarily management, time zone, cultural, and language issues. It costs almost nothing to call someone or send an e-mail anywhere in the world.

The Perfect Storm
Tapscott and Williams write that a serendipitous convergence of several factors has led to the collaborative opportunities described in Wikinomics. One is the new technology of communication available on the web. Another is the emergence of a computer and web-literate generation, born after 1977, described by the authors as the NET-generation. (Some call it the Next-generation because it follows the older Generation X). The NET-generation has grown up under the doting care of their baby boomer parents. They have seen their parents work in corporate jobs, and they don’t like what they see. The NET-generation wants speed, freedom, openness, innovation, mobility, authenticity, and playfulness in their jobs. Unlike earlier generations, the NET-generation is not concerned with security and not particularly interested in money. Another convergence is the emergence of a global economy. A skilled workforce has emerged throughout the world and, through new communication technologies, is available to corporations in the United States and worldwide. The authors refer to this triple convergence as the Perfect Storm.

The rest of the book goes on to describe seven new ways of conducting business and developing value made possible by the Perfect Storm. The titles below are the authors’ chapter titles, followed by my more descriptive titles after the colon.

The Peer Pioneers: Open Source
When we think of open source, we think of Linux. The authors spend a lot of time with the story of the emergence of Linux as an alternative to the closed operating system, Microsoft Windows. A more pertinent example for us as information developers which the authors don’t mention is DITA.  IBM developed DITA and released it as open source to the OASIS standards group.

The authors explore why organizations release their products to open source. IBM has moved from primarily a product-manufacturing company to a service-oriented company. A problem for all high tech companies is that the cost of high tech products continues to fall. The cost of almost anything high tech will be less next year than it is today. IBM obviously feels it can do better by promoting DITA as a free open-source product while providing consulting services to DITA users. IBM still maintains control of DITA through the expertise of its original developers and IBM also benefits by getting free R&D from a host of users and consultants. The same thing is true for Linux, which supports a thriving consulting business.
The authors predict that the high tech economy will move more and more to open source and consulting services.

Ideagoras: Outsourcing R&D
Research and development is expensive, and programming is fun. Because of these facts, some leading organizations (Boeing, Dow, DuPont, Novartis, Proctor & Gamble) have been trying to encourage individuals not on their payroll to help solve corporate technical problems through a clearing house spun off by Eli Lilly called InnoCentive. As registered individuals find innovative solutions, they are rewarded for their efforts, but they are never on anyone’s payroll.

This chapter describes a number of other innovations that companies are using to improve their R&D without adding to their R&D labor costs. As in the Peer Pioneers chapter, companies are looking for ways to decrease labor costs and make use of a vastly larger pool of minds than they could afford on their payroll. At the same time, the R&D experience and rewards are spread among a resource that would have little hope of being hired for R&D by these organizations.
Organizations are moving from their support and training of loyal employees to a search for the best minds throughout the world.

The Prosumers: Customer Collaboration
Companies are finding a vast resource in their customers and users. The authors give examples that go beyond the traditional activities of focus groups, observing customers at work, or usability testing. Companies partner with customers at a peer level to do design and R&D. Customers are a great resource as long as they share in the rewards for their efforts.

The New Alexandrians: Open Source Information
The United States is burdened with an obsolete legal structure for the protection of intellectual property along with obsolete political representatives who don’t have a clue about the needs of modern business. Disney, Microsoft, and media companies have benefited greatly from this obsolete structure by creating empires based not on quality, but rather on copyright.

The authors describe alternatives that would be more in line with modern intellectual property needs while still providing protection for musicians, authors, and innovators.

Platforms for Participation: User Modifiable Software
Tapscott and Williams describe examples of organizations that provide software upon which individuals can develop their applications. Examples discussed here are Google, eBay, and Amazon.  They point out that thousands of people have developed businesses on top of these and other products.

Individuals are using these products and others for the public good. An example is the work that was done by several groups to provide effective information for survivors of Hurricane Katrina when the Federal government failed in its obligations.

The Global Plant Floor: Global R&D
This chapter is of special interest to information developers. The authors describe the efforts of North American and European companies to offshore their R&D. Not mentioned by the authors is the offshoring of information developers. The authors point out that although labor costs may be cheaper offshore, the real reason companies are offshoring is to find the best talent for R&D and information development. (Some may disagree with the previous statement.)

The Wiki Workplace: The Collaborative Workplace
Communication technology has changed the way we think of the workplace. The workplace is no longer a physical location with equipment and personnel coming together in one place. Equipment and people can now be spread across the campus, across the city, across the country, or across the globe. It makes little difference. Instead of hiring locally or relocating, companies can look for the best solutions anywhere.

At the same time the authors write that the hierarchical structure of companies is changing along with the geography. Employees no longer need to do specific tasks given to them by a local supervisor, but instead they can all take responsibility for the welfare of the organization. Each and every employee can have his or her ideas for innovation taken seriously.

An interesting corollary to this discussion, not brought up by Tapscott and Williams, are benefits of the collaborative workplace, not directly related to the bottom line.

Every day that an employee does not need to report to the archaic workplace is a day without a commute. It represents less traffic, less road building, less impact on the family car, and more time with the children as well as more time for company matters. Every day that an employee does not need to report to the archaic workplace means less carbon dioxide emission, less dependence on oil and other valuable resources, and less global warming.

What Does Wikinomics Mean to the Technical Communication Community?
As I was reading Wikinomics, I was impressed with its similarity to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Released in 1968, Kubrick and Clarke’s movie provides a snapshot of what the world would be like in 2001. Of course, 2001 has come and gone. A few of the predictions were realized; most were not. Travel is not much different now than in the 1960s. We’re not flying into space on commercial flights. In fact, some of the aircraft flying today were already flying at the time the movie was released.

At the same time we have seen innovations that neither Kubrick, Clarke, nor anyone else could have imagined. The future was as unpredictable in the 1960s as it is today.

I think we should take the predictions made in Tapscott and Williams’ book as fantasy, just like 2001. They give us a picture of a world that will not be realized as a whole, while still providing us with glimpses into the future. The future will be different and probably more fantastic than Tapscott and Williams can imagine. Technical communication 10 or 20 years from now will be as different as today’s technical communication is from 10 or 20 years ago. Let’s hope the future improves the lives of all the people and not just the bottom lines of the corporations. CIDMIconNewsletter

About the Author


Bill Hackos
Vice President
Comtech Services, Inc.

Dr. Hackos has worked with companies in the United States and Europe, helping them solve their publications management problems. He has been heavily involved in many benchmarking projects related to publications management. Dr. Hackos has also helped in the design of graphic user interfaces that are easy to learn and to use. With 30 years’ experience in the computer industry, Dr. Hackos understands how to increase the usability of products.