Problems With Open Collaboration

A recent article in Strategy+Business (a magazine published by booz&co) notes the pitfalls of open collaboration: tapping into the power of emergent, bottom-up social networks to generate innovation.  The companies that have been successful with it are well known:  IBM with its innovation jams, and P&G with its open innovation strategy.  But other companies often struggle to realize the benefits.  The article’s basic premise is that open collaboration is similar to the “quality” movements of the 1980s (remember TQM?)  The article notes:

Today, practitioners of open collaboration are picking up, in some ways, where the quality movement left off. They are working to tap the knowledge and creativity of a broad range of constituents, including employees and suppliers. In the process they are also rethinking their organizational structures and systems. Most important, at the core of both the quality and open collaboration movements (and sometimes it’s unclear where one leaves off and the other begins) are the values of trial-and-error learning, open communication, and systems thinking. Both movements recognized that employees — given the right tools, training, and management environment — are in the best position to do the analysis needed for meaningful improvement and innovation.

So what held back the quality movement?  Hierarchical thinking; truly listening to the ideas of the rank and file; making the long-term commitment to professional development and cultural change.  Of the seven suggestions the article lists for better success, I found three compelling: (1) Build a culture of trust and open communication; (2) Build a flexible innovation infrastructure; (3) Align evaluations and rewards.

Harnessing the Wisdom of Crowds

We’ve heard a lot about collective intelligence, Web 2.0.  Internet-based examples abound: Wikipedia, Google, Threadless.  Thomas Malone and colleagues have written a new article proposing an analytic framework to help us think about these networks, what they call the “building blocks” or “genes” of collective intelligence.  Of course, I wanted to see how their framework compares to my own “collaborative web” model from Group Genius.  Based on a study of 250 examples of web communities, here’s what they propose.

The four building blocks are answers to these questions: Who is doing the task? Why? What is being done? How?  How these questions are answered determines which “gene” it is.

The Who question has two genes: (1) Hierarchical organization determines who.  (2) Crowd gene: Anyone can participate.

The Why question has three genes: (1) Money (2) Intrinsic motivation of the task (3) fame or reputation.

The What question has two genes: (1) Create something new; (2) Select among alternatives.

The How question has two genes for each of the what genes, depending on whether it is independent or collective.  For “Create” the two genes are Collect independent contributions and Collaborate together.  For “Select” the two genes are Group decisions (Aggregate individual group decisions by voting or consensus etc.) and Individual decisions, through markets or social networks.

Then continuing the biological analogy, they analyze specific examples of web-based collaboration and call them “genomes.”

This is a useful way of breaking down different web-based communities, although I found it not very surprising or new.  The key thing that’s missing from this model is what I think is the biggest challenge facing such communities: What is the right degree of central control and structure?  Communities with no central structure are usually a huge mess.  Linux succeeds only because of a strong central guiding body, led by Linus Torvalds.  The model presented in this article seems most appropriate for tasks where no central control is necessary, where small items are created that don’t need to coordinate with each other in complex systems (in Wikipedia each entry stands alone; with Threadless, each t-shirt design is independent).  But with Linux, everything has to work together.  That’s a key variable missing from this model, but I have no doubt Malone and colleagues are aware of this and are thinking about it. (The 7/19/2009 NYTimes article by Steve Lohr, where Prof. Malone was interviewed, explicitly addresses this topic.)  Perhaps another paper will emerge from the same research study.

*Thomas W. Malone, Robert Laubacher, and Chrysanthos Dellarocas. February 2009.  Harnessing Crowds: Mapping the Genome of Collective Intelligence.

The Road to Economic Recovery

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland is always an opportunity for big-picture thinking (see my post about the 2008 Forum here).  And this one comes right in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  In a deep crisis, innovation can be perceived as optional; “we have to focus on survival”. So I was delighted to read when Dr. Paul Stoffels, company group chairman of pharmaceutical research and development at Johnson & Johnson, advocated innovation as the way out of the crisis in the Boston Globe this week.  And not just any innovation, but open innovation–the kind of networked co-creation that I advocate in my book Group Genius.

He writes:

“Our scientists are taking a networked approach across internal organizational disciplines and geographies, including Asia and other emerging markets, and increasingly with external public and private partners to generate ideas and intellectual property. By working with experts at other companies, universities, and research institutes, we tap a wider range of expertise, capabilities, and resources. Together we share in both the benefits and costs of innovation that will yield more useful technologies and solutions that will contribute to new advances in healthcare.”

Innovation is necessary for survival.  And Johnson & Johnson gets it.