For more than a hundred years, organizations across all sectors have been driving towards efficiency by creating routine or automated processes. This single-minded focus has allowed many organizations to create an array of impressive core competencies, but it has also blinded many to where true value lies. Moving forward, it's not perfect processes that separate the leaders from the also-rans; it's how they organize and enable their talent.
The chance to create real value occurs when tasks arise that automated processes or established rules can't handle, observes John Seely Brown, former chief scientist of Xerox Corporation and co-author of landmark business book The Only Sustainable Edge: Why Business Strategy Depends on Productive Friction and Dynamic Specialization. Such exceptions, because they exceed the capabilities of computers and machines, must therefore be handled by people. Against this backdrop, bringing the right talent together is the new business imperative.
In Brown's view, the richest opportunities for innovation lie at the edges—the edges of business processes, organizations, emerging economies in regions such as Asia Pacific, and new generations of tech-savvy consumers and workers. Naturally, organizations gain more strategic advantage by embracing this new knowledge creation, rather than focusing on protecting what they already have. They also must not fear the edges, where creative friction can yield breakthrough ideas and innovation.
"The opportunity and the challenge lies in networking the right people, giving them the tools to address the problem, and creating a record of how they handled the exception so they can see the pattern of where exceptions occur over time and gain valuable insight into innovation opportunities," Brown explains.
This is where technology plays a deciding role. In contrast to previous generations of technology that focused primarily on automating business processes within the organization, largely to reduce cost, this new generation of technology will shift to amplifying the practices of people, especially as they seek to collaborate. Fortunately, robust capabilities are already being developed to help connect and empower the right people at the right time.
This new breed of software—which includes collaborative workspaces, blogs, and wikis—allows companies and individuals to address unexpected challenges and opportunities and connect with other groups to push their collective abilities in new directions. In the content industry, these tools are combining to pave the way to radically new and egalitarian approaches to creating, distributing, and sharing content.
Mass Media for the Masses
Over the past decade, mass media has been transformed by the digitization of content and by new ways for consumers to access, assemble, and distribute it through the Internet. Rather than be passive consumers of content waiting for companies to push out information, consumers increasingly consume what they want when and how they want it. On the production side, a new kind of "remix culture" has emerged, thanks to the availability of tools that allow users to pull a variety of music tracks and recombine them or collect content from a broad range of sources and publish it to the Web. The result is a culture of participation where every individual has the potential to be a publisher, photographer, performer, or programmer.
The focus has shifted from one-to-many content publishing to many-to-many content creation. New collaborative tools are gaining traction that can transform flickers of creative energy into an electric storm by connecting the right people with the right ideas at the right time. "It's a trend that has legs," observes Marc Strohlein, a lead analyst at Outsell, Inc. The popularity of blogs and wikis has "opened the gates on social publishing," Strohlein says. "The tools are falling into place that allow people to get their ideas, work, and content out to the broad masses and communicate and collaborate with anyone across the planet."
More importantly, these tools can build two-way communication with an audience and empower members in today's culture of participation. A prime example of this dynamic is the rise of the wiki, a relatively simple tool that allows any member of a group to change any piece of Web-based content, any page, any image at any time.
"The wiki revives the idea of the writable Web, where every reader is a writer, which was how the Internet was conceived in the first place," observes Ross Mayfield, CEO and co-founder of Socialtext, a provider of lightweight collaboration software that combines wikis, blogs, and integrated email to provide a platform for unstructured, ad hoc collaboration. "Wikis are really transformative in how they allow users to collaborate on projects," Mayfield says. "What you get is people sharing knowledge as a by-product of daily work."
Already Mayfield has been pleasantly surprised by how users are inventing new ways to use the wiki and ultimately get what they want from group interaction. "They use the wiki to encourage the creative friction that can often lead to good ideas, he says. "Wikis are just the beginning of a larger do-it-yourself trend."