Wikinomics: What does it Mean for Technical Communication?

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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.

The Perfect Storm

Tapscott and Williams write that a serendipitous convergence of several factors has lead 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. Another convergence is the emergence of a global economy. The authors refer to this triple convergence as the Perfect Storm.

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

The Peer Pioneers: Open Source

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.

Tapscott and Williams explore why organizations release their product to open source. IBM has moved from primarily a product manufacturing company to a service-oriented company. 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 its domination of OASIS and through the expertise of its original developers. 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. Wikinomics itself is open to peer production. The authors invited its readers to contribute content to the book’s final chapter. The results of that effort are scheduled to go to print in September 2007. For more information, visit the Wikinomics Wiki.

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. 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.

The Prosumers: Customer Collaboration

Companies are finding a vast resource in their customers and users. The authors give examples that go way 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 provided that 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.

The Wiki Workplace: The Collaborative Workplace

Communication technology has changed the way we think of the workplace. It 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.

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 stress on the family car, more time with the children as well as more time at 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?

We must remember as we read about the wonders of inexpensive instantaneous global communication, that only a small minority of the world’s people are benefiting. A few years ago, I read that less than half the people in the world have ever used a telephone. Even in the United States, Wikinomics has little direct effect on the work and lives of most people, although everyone is affected indirectly. Nevertheless, for American information developers, we will see an enormous effect on our jobs and lives. Along with the benefits we receive from Wikinomics, each of us carries a responsibility to ensure that humanity benefits as well.

To read the original, full version of this article which originally appeared in Best Practices, Volume 9, Issue 4, please contact the CIDM Administrator, Susie Ebbs.