Review – Wikinomics: "All Together Now…"

“Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything” by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams is a bit of a departure from the other books read for this course. While “The Long Tail” and “The Wealth of Networks” are primarily about how the networked information economy has evolved, directions it may take and their impact, this work is more about collaborative economy and production not necessarily tied to the network as scoped by Anderson and Benkler.

According to Tapscott and Williams, Wikinomics is based on four ideas: openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally. Each of these ideas is defined with supporting examples of businesses in operation today. The bulk of the book is then spent providing deeper case studies of specific ways that companies may “harness mass collaboration for better innovation and growth” (pg. 64). They define these as peer production, ideagoras, prosumer communities, the new Alexandrians, open platforms, global plant floors and wiki workplaces.

There are a number of “the usual suspects” in these studies and some more unknown and intriguing ones as well. The gold standards for peer production examples are Linux and Wikipedia. IBM is brought forward as a business that “get’s it” when it comes to engaging with and enabling peer production in the Linux community. The fact that IBM also makes considerable revenue from providing services around Linux is highlighted, since one of the big questions around a project like Linux is how to make money from it.

The authors define ideagoras as emerging global marketplaces where companies can “find uniquely qualified minds and discover and develop new products and services faster and much more efficiently than they have in the past.”(pg. 98) Numerous samples of these marketplaces for various kinds of ideas and products are listed. The companies that take advantage of them, a notable example being Proctor and Gamble, have realized that there is more creative talent outside the company walls than inside and have worked toward creating more permeable walls between their business and these innovators outside. The challenge has been to better scope the specific value the company brings to a product or process, reaching the best ratio of internal to external innovation, and bringing to bear the peculiar capabilities of the corporation.

A prosumer is a producing consumer. This concept is beyond product customization by customers. It is customer co-innovation. The first example mentioned is the online community Second Life wherein a virtual environment is created in which to exist and basic tools are provided with which to manage the existence of your own avatar and then create things within the virtual world. Value is created by the inhabitants themselves, and there are a number of people who actually make a living within Second Life. Another example given is the LEGO Company and the symbiotic relationship they have built with their customers. The big dilemma with prosumption is corporate control versus customer hacking. The example given is Apple’s dilemma with the popularity of the iPod and iPhone. They wish to keep the system closed and controlled, but may thereby be locking out the innovation that might make these devices more than they were designed to be.

Each of the other case study areas of the new Alexandrians, open platforms, global plant floors and wiki workplaces provides a more in depth look at companies who have struggled with innovation, costs, market, communication and collaboration in and out of the workplace. Briefly, the new Alexandrians are concerned with the sharing of basic science, and the Human Genome Project is an example. Open platforms are those free services and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that are used in mash-ups and other businesses. A major example is the utterly unscripted response by the network community to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in building the PeopleFinder application to help survivors locate each other. Global plant floors is about companies like Lifan (China) and Boeing who are using more distributed manufacturing methodologies to design and make products. The wiki workplace is about communication and collaboration in the workplace as key to growth and innovation, with Best Buy and Geek Squad as examples.

I found much to appreciate in this work, not the least of which is the discussion of different kinds of businesses and endeavors that use mass collaboration successfully. However, though the authors do occasionally allude to there being barriers and problems in moving to this mode of production, it seems they are too willing to ignore areas where this has not worked. They state early in the book that “Even with good intentions, mass collaboration is certainly no panacea” (pg. 16), but they do not pay very much attention to their own warning.

A notable example is the Boeing Dreamliner (787) project. Boeing has taken an unprecedented step in engaging suppliers more deeply in the design of their components instead of providing them a piece-by-piece specification. The authors even mention the much smaller size of a specification for electronics (pg. 226) versus the same specification for the 777. Few of the current challenges and delays are mentioned in the book, despite this being a second edition published in 2008. These delays and their causes (primarily around suppliers being unable to deliver) can be found in numerous places including Wikipedia and the Boeing site itself.

The authors are given to a degree of hyperbole which can present a more critical reader with visceral reactions that might lead to disbelief in their message. A comment like “…this is the first time in human history when children are authorities on something really important…..young people are authorities on the digital revolution that is changing every institution in society.” (pg.47) can color the perception of the rest of the work.

I find the case studies and ideas in this book add breadth and depth to the works mentioned earlier in this review. Bringing the discussion beyond the network allows more enterprises to see value in mass collaboration and helps make sense out of the models available today with an eye toward their evolution. While there are blind spots and occasional cheerleading, I recommend the work.

4 thoughts on “Review – Wikinomics: "All Together Now…"

  1. Pingback: Closing Session - “Your Choice” Books « Net-Centric Economics

  2. Hi Jeff—Great review. After hearing the summary you and Ross gave last night I thought “I wish I had read that book!” Key reason is that the same examples seem to be referenced over and over (Wikipedia, SETI@Home, etc) whenever someone talks about the collaborative opportunities enabled by the internet. So, it makes me wonder if these examples are true indicators of a larger opportunity or are they standalone success stories?

    I’m most curious about how the authors addressed the notion of collaboration vs integration. I think it’s important to make the distinction, particularly in the context of commercial projects because it informs process, management principles, timeline expectations, etc.

    For example, Second Life seems to work as a collaborative effort because it’s an additive project—meaning whatever people add could be independent of someone else’s addition and this organic growth ostensibly enhances the overall value. Wikipedia is the same way.

    But what about projects that involve a clearly defined end-product, such as the Dreamliner? Like a puzzle, every piece is highly dependent on every other. Contributions are not designed independently. It strikes me the Dreamliner project is really an integrated effort not a collaborative one. It’s well known that integration within a single company can be difficult (business books provide oodles of examples). And so it’s not surprising a project that big and based on a widely distributed integration model (that requires competitors to work together) is facing significant challenges. But I would consider it an example of the challenges associated with integrated projects, not necessarily an example of wiki failure.

    I look forward to reading the book.

  3. Pingback: Comment on Jeff’s Wikinomics « Sarah Lane’s Weblog

  4. I was worried about commenting on a book review of a book I have not read. I wasn’t sure I would be able to gain enough understanding of the book to decide whether or not to read it. This is why I liked your review so much.

    You do a good job explaining the main points and relevance of the book in your review. I was a little concerned I wouldn’t be able to follow the review due to my lack of understanding of some of the vocabulary at the beginning of the review, “They define these as peer production, ideagoras, prosumer communities, the new Alexandrians, open platforms, global plant floors and wiki workplaces.” But, you go on later in the review to explain what those terms mean, which made the review more meaningful.

    I also appreciated how you related this book to the other books we have read in class. This, along with the definitions, gave me a good base of common understanding from which to decide whether or not to read the book.

    Normally I prefer more analysis and less summary in a book review, but in this case I think it was necessary to understand the authors’ claims and I was very glad you helped your audience grasp the concepts of the book before arguing whether the book is worth reading.

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