For centuries, the encyclopedia was viewed as the single most reliable reference source for just about everything. Encyclopedia articles were written, edited, vetted and edited some more, until finally an article appeared that was as close to absolute truth as humans could make it.
Then came the Internet, and shortly thereafter sites such as Wikipedia. Now, instead of content on a given topic being determined by the elite few, anyone can contribute their thoughts, ideas and points of view. How egalitarian. The other side to it is all of this collaboration has created what comedian Stephen Colbert refers to as the reality we can all agree on.
That may be bad for pure academic research. Not to mention students trying to write their term papers with as little effort as possible. But it could be the way of the world for IT executives in the future. Forty-four percent of those surveyed by CIO Insight in November 2007 agreed that technologies that gather and present the wisdom of crowds will be among the most important technological developments in 2012 to 2017.1 So perhaps the wiki way will not be so bad for the business world.
For years, when organizations would outsource applications or services, they pretty much had to take whatever the supplier offered. And just as with the politics Colbert skewers on a regular basis, sometimes the choice wasnt that you wanted option A so much as you really didnt like option B, and wouldnt use it/vote for it in a million years.
The wiki mentality has the chance to change that. Rather than settling for a hard set of capabilities based on the knowledge and abilities of the suppliers internal development team, taking a wiki-like approach means using a much larger set of brains to create an application or service that is more flexible than in the past. This flexibility gives it the ability to satisfy a much larger set of demands, and to do it without waiting for the next major revision.
Take infrastructure management services, for example. A decade ago outsourcing the management of the data infrastructure at all was considered heretical. It was an organizations strategic advantage, and thus not to be trusted to outsiders. Today, weve come to realize that the data (and our ability to analyze it) is the strategic advantage. The infrastructure is merely the vessel that holds it. Its just like the difference between gold bars and a vault. One has intrinsic value, and the other is merely there to contain and protect that value.
Because of that, organizations are finding less and less reason to keep (and manage) the infrastructure inside their own walls. Perhaps the one thing holding them back is finding an infrastructure management partner that will do things the way they want them done.
With a wiki-style approach, that will change. The suppliers will become used to taking and incorporating customer input not only to satisfy the needs of a particular customer, but also to benefit their entire customer base. In other words, the ideas/improvements that Company A wants to implement are seen by other customers, and together the customer base helps drive the way the infrastructure is managed. The business model then becomes the reality the customers can all agree on.
This wiki mentality is also being used in areas such as product development. Open source software is doubtless the best-known example. Open source applications are constantly being improved upon by the people who use them; more importantly, as users develop improvements they are morally and contractually obligated to share their innovations with all other users. It doesnt take long before one persons great idea becomes the reality all users can agree on.
This idea is now being expanded into other product areas. Communities are springing up to help organizations tap into a much wider range of brain power than theyve had access to in the past. Heres how they work:
Suppose Company A has an idea for a product or service, but isnt quite sure how to make it work. They can go to a community site and look for individuals or other organizations that may have the expertise they need, or they can post a notice of their needs on the community site. Company A and interested members of the community can then brainstorm the concept, divide up the work and ultimately share in the rewards.
One of the advantages of this community-based approach is that it removes many of the old limitations of business, such as geography and budget. Organizations are free to seek out talent wherever it happens to live and can review solutions from several providers while only paying for the one they ultimately accept. The end result is the sum of the knowledge of all who contribute to it, which is certain to be greater than the knowledge of any single individual or organization.
Therein lays the opportunity. Rather than relying solely on our own knowledge and experience the way the old encyclopedia-makers did, the wiki approach allows organizations to leverage a much broader range of knowledge and experiences than they could ever afford to develop internally. Sure, some of that knowledge might elicit a smirk from Stephen Colbert. But it wont take long before the cream rises to the top, as it always does. And at that point, the business reality truly will be one we can all agree on.
- CIO Insight. "The Technologies of Tomorrow." CIOInsight.com, December 12, 2007.
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