by C.G. Lynch

Standing Up versus Sitting-In

Feb 13, 20075 mins
Enterprise Applications

During my final term of college last spring, I took a class about the history of the Caribbean. As a journalism major, I took it as an elective. While the professor seemed very knowledgeable on the subject, he was grouchy man. Through his lectures and a variety of depressing documentary films, we were bombarded with images of the intense poverty endured by those living in the Caribbean. He concluded one day: If you’re not outraged by what’s going on in the world, you’re not alive. If you all went out and protested like we did in the 1960s, perhaps things would be different.

Being chided like this didn’t bother me too much. After four years of college, I’d certainly grown accustomed to self-important professors droning on about their life’s work in their own uniquely arrogant way.

But what Professor Grouchy said next aggravated me. A lot.

In laying down the guidelines for our upcoming term paper, I recall him saying, “Some of you love this Wikipedia I’m always hearing about. You just find it so easy and great. But I can tell you that us here in academia don’t think much of it. Most of it tends to be erroneous.”

I wanted to jump out of my seat.

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows millions of users to post and edit information on any subject, actually tends to be quite accurate. In December 2005, Nature, a British journal, examined scientific terms as defined by both Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica. According to news reports, the study found only “eight serious errors,” four in the Wikipedia and four in Britannica. Perturbed by the study, Britannica initially refused to comment on it. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales modestly told the BBC, “We’re hoping [the study] will focus people’s attention on the overall level of our work, which is pretty good.”

At my peril, I ultimately ignored Professor Grouchy and used some Wikipedia sources for my paper. When grading it, he loped ten points off for using “too many online sources.” But something important occurred to me that day: I realized that just as people in the 1960s started a revolution by going out and standing up to presidents, wars and discrimination, the visionaries of the past couple decades have started one by sitting down and staying in their rooms and offices.

The fact that the internet has facilitated an extraordinary level of collaboration among the masses is nothing new. But what isn’t widely understood is how businesses can harness this collective intelligence to create better innovations and show demonstrative results (yes, I mean money here when I say results). And that’s what I hope to explore with you in this blog: how companies can utilize the internet to facilitate collaboration that betters their organizations and society at large.

Here are some examples—albeit some obvious ones—that illustrate just how the collaborative movement has already affected business:

  • Linus Torvalds and other developers created Linux, the famed open source operating system that would be embraced by tech giants like IBM and HP.
  • Open source software and related products developed on the open source model have become prevalent in businesses big and small (are you reading this using Firefox?). As founder Craig Newmark told CIO in his “Five Things I’ve learned” (it’s in our Feb. 15 issue, which should be online shortly), “Open source software is often higher in quality and more secure than proprietary software.”
  • The efficiency of google and its PageRank system have, as the company put it, used the “collective intelligence of the web to determine a page’s importance.”
  • Like it or not, it’s inescapably true that blogs, instant messaging (like AIM) and social networking (like MySpace and Facebook) have made communication all over the world easier than ever. And it isn’t just being utilized to catch up with an old high school friend or score a date. Businesses are using these tools to recruit better talent and make deals.
  • As CIO Senior Editor Ben Worthen reported in his recent feature about user management (also in the Feb. 15 issue—look, you’re going to have to break down and subscribe one of these days), the CIO of Continental airlines freely admitted that a member of his company secured lower fuel costs over IM.
  • As Don Tapscott mentioned in his new book on this phenomenon, Wikinomics, companies like P&G have posted R&D projects on the web to harness some of the most brilliant scientific talent in the world. (Think P&G made some money off of that? Yes, I think so, too.)
  • In October 2006, MIT launched its Center for Collective Intelligence, officially bringing the collaborative movement to the attention of some of the world’s best thinkers in academia. (They promptly set up a wiki to let all of us help them articulate just what this movement will do for business and society).

For you, the question will be how you let this phenomenon permeate your organization. If you reject it as a populous fad, people in your company will undoubtedly rebel (sorry any of you haters of “web 2.0” who think this is another exuberant and misguided movement like the dot com bubble, but they will).

Conversely, if you jump into the collective movement blindly, you’ll lie awake sleepless at night, wondering if any malevolent forces have gotten access to your company’s most precious resources.

The balance will be difficult. And I certainly don’t profess to know all of the best solutions to these challenges. But with all of us working in this collaboratory, I bet we’ll find out together. Please post your thoughts, and we’ll get started.