In the Old Economy, those who owned the exclusive rights to a product or service could become very wealthy. Today the tables have turned, and it's openness and the free availability of good ideas that drive value.
"The simple truth is that no company has a monopoly on great ideas and great people anymore," argues Henry Chesbrough, executive director of the Center for Technology Strategy and Management at the University of California's Haas School of Business in Berkeley and author of the best-selling business book Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology. "Once you acknowledge that, the innovation task shifts to locating and connecting to the smart people—wherever they are."
Be careful not to limit the search to the usual suspects; user communities are also bubbling over with good ideas. Advances in computing and communication technologies enable users to design and build what they want for themselves. What's more, users don't just create; they share their knowledge freely with other users, who in turn, make improvements.
In his breakthrough book Democratizing Innovation, Eric von Hippel, head of the Technological Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, documents the impact of user input on product innovation. From extreme-sports equipment to library information systems, users are consistently ahead of the curve, von Hippel observes. Indeed, some 80% of the novel products he and his colleagues have studied over the last several years were prototyped by users first. "Open-source projects are object lessons that teach us that individuals can develop, produce, diffuse, maintain, and update products for themselves in the context of user communities," von Hippel says.
But this grassroots approach isn't limited to manufactured products and software. Motivated individuals linked by the Internet in what von Hippel calls "open information communities" are fast becoming a new force in the content creation and distribution marketplace. These communities are by no means restricted to user groups. "They can also be run by nonprofit organizations and profit-making firms and have a profound effect on how we create and share knowledge at all levels of our society in the future," von Hippel says.
Open-Source Content Communities
Dissatisfied with a-few-sizes-fit-all commercial content, open information communities harness technology to create more content and more choices for themselves. A compelling example is Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia created entirely by users who are part of an "open-source content community." Since its birth in 2001, Wikipedia has grown to include more than 1.1 million entries. While the absence of editors, fact-checkers, and control of any kind makes it difficult for many to accept it as a reference work, Wikipedia is nonetheless a remarkable phenomenon that shows users can create and distribute content themselves.
"It is likely that information communities will become more pervasive—and more powerful—for the same reason that user innovation communities are: the costs of diffusing information are decreasing as computing and communications technologies improve," von Hippel says.
Against this backdrop, Nextaris, a platform-neutral toolbox for online publishers, content creators, design teams, and developers, is poised to take the concept of free information exchange to the next level. It was developed by SurfWax, a provider of targeted search and retrieval technology, to allow users to search, capture, manage, and securely share and publish online information and collaborative blogs from the desktop or Web-enabled mobile devices. More important, Nextaris allows users to share folders of information in a peer-to-peer system, allowing real-time collaboration.
"We knew there had to be a better way to not only search and track information online, but also organize, use, and share that information with others," notes Tom Holt, SurfWax CEO. "To this end, Nextaris would not be a search engine, or blog site, or news site, or bookmarking site—it would be all those and more." To further facilitate the universal exchange of information, Nextaris also "summarizes information in rapid fashion showing users the original source, the contributor, and the key points," Holt explains. Like a staffer who briefs a politician before an important meeting, Nextaris "delivers users information in a form they can digest and put to use."
At SINE Ministries, a nonprofit organization, Nextaris makes it possible for a team of 20 authors and translators scattered across the U.S., China, Russia, and Ukraine, to produce The Story of the Messiah, a religious book and audio-recording series recounting the life of Jesus Christ. "It enables a new kind of author-driven publishing," observes Max Rondoni, a SINE Ministries project manager. "Most major publishers are clueless about markets and tastes that lie outside the mainstream. Now authors and small companies are able to break new ground and publish content the majors would rather ignore."
Rondoni currently uses Nextaris to create and share content as well as copyright information and other important project data. "The toolbox also allows us to connect with a wider network of talent, and likewise, project members in countries such as China are empowered to make a worthwhile contribution to the group." In the future, Rondoni plans to use Nextaris to manage content distribution.