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Archive for April, 2008

Last week, I went along to the RSA to listen to Charles Leadbeater talk about his book “We Think”, research and thoughts on the web and the web’s effect on mass creativity, innovation and collaboration.  He indicated how the web has created new vantage points on old questions (e.g. effect of technology on societal change and the scale of such change) and new dichotomies (e.g. sharing vs making money, and autonomy vs authority, where online collaborations create new hierarchies and different forms of ‘control’).  This provided the context for the central themes of his book, namely

  • Ethic of Participation:* Prior behaviour characterised by ‘work during the day’ and ‘consuming or engaging in social pursuits by night’ is becoming more complex, and being blurred by people (who are ‘amateurs’) creating things in their leisure time (traditional ‘consumption’ time) to a very high standard, and using those outputs during work time (e.g. open source s/w).
  • New ways to collaborate:* Involving hierarchies, but of a different kind to those which we are accustomed, being more meritocratic, transparent and fluid.  That is leading to new forms of organisation, which allow us to imagine how we can get stuff done together, as well as giving us new perspectives on control and value chains – now being more like hives or nests.
  • New motivations: Which asks us to look at why people are contributing to the content and community of the web.  Some motivations revolve around recognition.  The implication being, that if businesses/organisations don’t get it, they are not going to be creating environments where people will contribute (creatively and innovatively), nor will the businesses/organisations themselves be contributing (or able to do so).
  • Ethic of Sharing:* How wealth in the broadest sense gets generated in an economy of ideas.  He suggested that the above three themes invite us to think about wealth creation in entirely new ways, and to depart from traditional models of closed investment/ownership/private property (historically) being the necessary ingredient for the development/exploitation of primary goods, labour, ideas and innovation.

These themes in turn raise considerations about freedom and its relationship with creativity – where one is perhaps derived from experiencing the other and forms part of the new ‘motivation’.  It also raises the question about how deep the participation culture will go when, for example, ideas are circulated and one organisation alone profits from their exploitation.  In other words, where people are choosing to do things in different ways, and are participating in new modes of on- and off- line collaboration (made possible by the web and the variety of technology available to users), what type of sharing models are available in a world based on wealth, and how do we innovate the business models themselves (not only the products and processes)?

In one area, new models have been facilitating the flow of resources and action to issues that need addressing even where there is no (or little) money to be made.  Take Kiva for example.  Kivais the world’s first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs in the developing world.  Guy Kawasaki explains that Kiva’s model involves a minimum $2.50 voluntary fee that lenders pay when checking out their “shopping cart.”  Consequently, lenders receive no interest and pay a voluntary fee to Kiva in order to loan money.  Great business model!  Relying as it does on people’s motivation to share and participate in the building of an online community (and to pay to do so).  Here, innovation in technology (web) and the business model itself has facilitated pockets of local action, which collectively, are having a tremendous global effect.  This type of thinking and action is also behind many climate change initiatives, not least of which being Do The Green Thing.

In other areas, the discussion surrounds the organisation, and its generation and exploitation of ideas and knowledge.  Chesbrough explores these ideas in his recent book “Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology“.  He discusses the departure from prior models which relied on creativity within the firm, to the need for innovation in the business model itself (i.e. models of ‘open innovation’) which enable firms to tap ideas of customers and users and involve customers as co-producers.  It also requires ideas to flow – into and out of the business – requiring a different approach to control and the creation of value.

Proctor and Gamble is perhaps one of the more famous examples of open innovation, actively seeking user-community participation in developing new product ideas.  Another interesting ‘environmental’ example, promoted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and IBM, is the “Eco-Patent Commons”.  That initiative makes available patents to “encourage researchers, entrepreneurs and companies of all sizes in any industry to create, apply and further develop their consumer or industrial products, processes and services in a way that will help to protect and respect the environment”.  Then, there’s Free Beer (thanks for the reference Eliot!).  It’s ‘free’ in the sense of “freedom”, not beer give-aways.  The organisation is using Creative Commons licences to give public access to the recipe and brand (for pleasure or profit).  Usual terms apply: “If you make money selling their unique beer, you have to give them credit and publish any changes you make to the recipe under a similar license”.  All the writing about ‘wisdom of the crowds’ suggests that the Free Beer recipe could be the best one yet!

Coming back to the themes above, about motivations, sharing and profiting from ideas, Leadbeater is suggesting that it’s unlikely that people will be satisfied with being anonymous contributors to a company’s ideas – they want a certain level of autonomy/freedom to create and to be appropriately recognised for their contribution.  And this is where many organisations are still getting it wrong by not understanding what is motivating people to participate, collaborate and share their thoughts.  As illustrated in the above examples, for this to happen, companies have to give away control to allow ideas and creativity to flow (and perhaps control over a range of their IP) which is probably counter-intuitive for many organisations.

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