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Distributed Co-Creation

From Blaise Zerega:

What Hath Open Source Wrought?: Five years ago this month, economist Brad DeLong asked a question central to the value of information technology. If the industrial age yielded the assembly line, what, he pondered, will the information age yield? "From a historical perspective," wrote DeLong in a Wired magazine column, "it's not at all surprising that we are thrashing about, still trying to figure out how to use these new tools most effectively." By tools, he was referring to computers, software, and of course, the web. The answer, he hinted, was to be found in open source software.

Fast forward to the present. It's obvious to anyone who has paid attention not just to advances like open source software, but to crowd-sourcing and to the importance of user-generated-mass-production. While we still have some thrashing about to do, it's going to be a glorious thrashing about. And you know a development is real when McKinsey gets involved. In June, the firm published The Next Step In Open Innovation (free registration required). The authors cite such examples as LEGO, the LAMP stack, and the design of the ATLAS particle detector. It's definitely worth a read this holiday weekend.

Oh, and the report offers up an answer to DeLong's thorny question: the authors dub the phenomenon he described as distributed co-creation. Gotta love it.


From Jacques Bughin, Michael Chui, and Brad Johnson:

next step in open innovation: For most companies, innovation is a proprietary activity conducted largely inside the organization in a series of closely managed steps. Over the last decade, however, a few consumer product, fashion, and technology businesses have been opening up the product-development process to new ideas hatched outside their walls....

Suppose that a wireless carrier, say, were to orchestrate the design of a new generation of mobile devices through an open network of interested customers, software engineers, and component suppliers, all working interactively with one another... open-source platforms developed through distributed cocreation, such as the “LAMP” stack (for Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP/Perl/Python), have become standard components of the IT infrastructure at many corporations. What facilitates this new approach to innovation is the rise of the Web as a participatory platform....

Distributed cocreation is too new for us to draw definitive conclusions about whether and how companies should implement it. But our research into these online communities and our work with a number of open-innovation pioneers show that it isn’t too soon for senior executives to start seriously examining the possibilities....

In nearly every sector, many of the ideas and technologies that generate products emerge from a number of participants in the value chain... suppliers understand the technology and manufacturability of their pieces of the end product better than the OEMs do.... The benefits of specialization and collaboration seem obvious today.... The example of Wikipedia suggests that companies can take even greater advantage of specialization by ceding more control over decisions about the content of products to networks of participants (suppliers, customers, or both) who interact with one another. Does this seem far-fetched? IBM apparently doesn’t think so: it has adopted the open operating system Linux for some of its computer products and systems, drawing on a core code base that is continually improved and enhanced by a massive global community of software developers, only a small fraction of whom work for IBM....

While distributed cocreation does seem promising, it isn’t entirely clear what capabilities companies will need (or how they will organize those capabilities) to make the most of it....

Many cocreating online communities assume that “crowds”5know more than individuals do and can therefore create better products; as the open-source-software expert Eric S. Raymond has said, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” It is far too early to know with certainty if this idea holds true across all kinds of products, but a growing consensus maintains that in software development, at least, distributed cocreation is a ticket to quality.... Apache runs more than half of all Web sites and that eight of the ten most reliable Internet hosting companies run Linux....

Research that we and others have conducted on consumers participating in online communities demonstrates that most cocreators recognize that the brand—not they—will own the resulting intellectual property. Why then do they get involved? Rewards and fame were certainly motivators, but participants are largely interested in making a contribution and seeing it become a reality.... In choosing between competing ones, brand affinity is the most important factor for users willing to cocreate, and 40 percent of would-be cocreators will refuse to cocreate with companies they don’t like or trust...


Brad DeLong:

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.07/view.html?pg=5: In the spring of 1994, I wiped the game Civilization off my office computer. I wiped it off my home PC. I wiped it off my laptop. I threw away the original disks on which it had come. It was clear to me that I had a choice: I could either have Civilization on my computers, or I could be a deputy assistant secretary of the US Treasury. I could not do both. It wasn't that my boss ordered me to - she herself played a mean game of computer solitaire. In this, I was the boss, and I had decided that with Civilization on DeLong's hard disk, DeLong's productivity would be unacceptably low.

Computers are tremendous labor-saving devices. They give us power to accomplish extraordinary amounts of work in extraordinarily short intervals of time: financial analysis, data mining, design automation. But they also give us the capability to do things like play solitaire. Or send instant messages. Fiddle with fonts. Futz with PowerPoint. Twiddle with images. Reconfigure link rollovers. At the organizational level, however, the uses of high tech that might be valuable for an individual can be pointless or counterproductive. Consider a meeting to decide between two courses of action. Often, the same decision would be made whether weeks were spent preparing overheads or no overheads were prepared at all. It's easy to see that, from the company's point of view, all the hours spent on PowerPoint slides are dissipated waste.

Now, I don't want to say that computers and communications haven't increased productivity. They have. They've tripled the underlying rate of productivity growth since the bad old days of the Carter, Reagan, and Bush Sr. economies. Large investments in computers and communications seem necessary for rapid, industry-level productivity growth. Still, there is a strong sense that computers are less of an asset to the economy than they might be if we truly knew what they were good for and how to use them.

McKinsey and its brethren tell horror stories of companies investing heavily in computers that were of no more use than doorstops: Kmart applied computers everywhere except in preparing to handle fluctuating sales volumes; automated check-imaging systems wound up saving banks neither time nor money. (McKinsey will also tell you that the best way to avoid such organizational dysfunction is - surprise! - to hire McKinsey.)

Meanwhile, we are a long way from the old-fashioned version of white-collar control, where you sat at your desk and either stared into space or did your work. Most often you stared, until you got so bored that your work seemed interesting. Today, white-collar workers want to use their machines to be more productive and impress their bosses, but also to do things like shop and read blogs, which make their lives happier and their workdays more interesting.

From a historical perspective, it's not at all surprising that we are thrashing about, still trying to figure out how to use these new tools most effectively. As Stanford's Paul David was the first to point out, much the same thing happened a century ago when the electric motor came to American manufacturing. New general-purpose technologies work well only if they are the base of a system, or form a cluster of reinforcing and self-sustaining changes in the way work is organized. With electric motors, the important gains arrived only when engineers used them to reorganize factory layouts to improve workflow, giving birth to mass production.

We do not yet know what will be to the information age as mass production was to the electricity age. Detailed monitoring of every keystroke, every word entered, every image viewed? A more relaxed workplace that accepts the mix of activities that fill our lives? Successful automation that makes jobs more interesting by off-loading the boring tasks onto microprocessors in a more thorough and comprehensive way?

Those who work for large organizations will likely face a future of increasing surveillance - in which managers know hour-by-hour how many items have been scanned through the register, how many keystrokes have been made in writing a legal brief, how many directory assistance calls have been answered, and in which modern technologies distinguish those who just look busy from those who are busy. If this happens, bosses can step up the pace and reduce the on-the-job leisure that we all enjoy.

The underlying ideology of the large company - that your time is its time - will, for a while, make the idea of using surveillance technologies irresistible to high-level managers. I hope this proves inefficient and counterproductive, that after a decade or a generation, such bosses will realize detailed, hour-by-hour surveillance simply doesn't boost output...

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