What does Linux, Second Life, the Human Genome Project and the Chinese Motor Cycle industry have in common? They are all projects where success is attributed to mass collaboration. All of them fall under the category of product development where there is no owner but thousands of contributors, something we refer to in the technology World as open-source development. With the advent of the new web, it is becoming easier and easier to collaborate with each other and mass collaboration is becoming a new economic mode, changing the way people innovate and create products (and services).
The finest example to explain the evolution of this phenomenon is Wikipedia (wiki meaning fast + encyclopedia) – a collaboratively created encyclopedia owned by no one and authored by tens of thousands of enthusiasts. With five paid full-time employees, it is about 10 times bigger than the Britannica encyclopedia and is more up-to-date than any other source of information online. Wikipedia uses free wiki software to allow multiple users edit the encyclopedia simultaneously. Critics have questioned Wikipedia’s reliability and accuracy, but despite all the risks of an open source development at this scale and continuous battles with detractors and saboteurs, studies have concluded that vandalism is normally short lived and Wikipedia is generally as accurate as other encyclopedias.
Product development through mass collaboration has reached diverse fields ranging from an encyclopedia to operating system (Linux) or application software (SourceForge has thousands of them), video game (Second Life) to mutual fund (Marketocracy), lending service (Zopa) to designing T-shirts (Threadless) to about anything. But success of Wikification is not limited to product development. The World of social networking is another example of how mass collaboration can be revolutionary. I am talking about the likes of MySpace, Flickr and YouTube. People use these portals as platform to share and connect across boundaries.
In order to thrive in this World of mass collaboration, businesses need to wikify themselves. There are a few things that are critical to the process of wikification of any business. First and foremost is sharing. Deciding how much to share beyond the organization is a judgement call. Share too much and you may loose your advantages. Share too little and you may not reap the benefits of collaboration. Scope and extent of sharing varies from one business to another. Other things that hold great importance are openness and peering. Communicating openly and honestly with the customers and lowering or eliminating boundaries go long way. Customers should be treated like peers and collaboration should be direct and global.
If you have dismissed wikification as irrelevant for your business, let us talk about an example that will make you think again. Goldcorp Inc., a company that mines gold went on to wikify its operations. When a main mine seemed to be dying and the company was struggling, the company came up with the “Goldcorp Challenge”, where company offered prizes of more than $500,000 for new ideas on how to find and extract gold. Ideas poured in. Some came from wildly unexpected quarters and applied new disciplines to the problem. The result? Miners found about eight million ounces of gold since the challenge, pulling the company out of trouble.
Creating products based on market research and distributing them through traditional media will not take your business too far. Today more and more companies are developing products by engaging their customers in the process to have customer-driven innovation. Customers participation starts from the planning phase and is there throughout the product cycle. This produces immense opportunities for the marketers. Marketers can nurture the community around their products. They can use these communities to engage the customers at various stages. And it really doesn’t matter if you are selling baby diapers or sports cars or commercial aircraft, engaging customers in the process will always lead to better products and you will end up having an edge over the competition.