Smarter, Better, Stronger, Together: A Look At How Collaboration is Transforming the Enterprise

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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Imagine, for a moment, trying to get two people to sit down together to write a book. Think of the effort it would take. First, schedules would have to be reconciled. In this age of multitasking and living out of a BlackBerry, scheduling alone can be an almost insurmountable obstacle. Assuming the two authors can free up enough time, there’s the issue of working styles. Maybe one can only work on the couch with a laptop in the middle of the night, while the other works best by transcribing handwritten notes onto a desktop workstation during breakfast. Even if the two authors are able to reach a compromise on a working style, the biggest question of all still looms: Who, in the end, will be the final arbiter of the style of the book that is, its substance, structure, and methodology?

Getting two people to collaborate on a single book would appear to be a task of Herculean proportions. Now imagine trying to get a million people to collaborate on a book.

That was precisely the task Barry Libert and Jon Spector set out to accomplish with the project We Are Smarter Than Me: How to Unleash the Power of Crowds in Your Business. With the support of two renowned American business schools, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the MIT Sloane School of Management, Libert and Spector endeavored to push the Web 2.0 envelope and break new ground in the realm of technological collaboration. Their mission: write a book using a wiki. Perhaps inevitably, the topic of this pioneering work was largely self-referential. The authors posed two questions: 1) Why do community approaches work (or not) when it comes to marketing, business development, distribution, and other business practices? and 2) what do companies have to do to make those community approaches work better? The project leaders invited more than 1 million people to contribute ideas in a wiki-based community, including students, faculty, and alumni from the two schools, as well as leaders, authors, and experts from the fields of management and technology. The community still thrives at www.wearesmarter.org.

Of the million invitees, a curious 4,375 registered as members of the community. Of those, about 250 made substantial contributions to the wiki. (All in all, a relatively tidy demonstration of the 90:9:1 rule.) Libert and Spector culled the final version of the book from 737 forum posts and 1,600 wiki posts. We Are Smarter Than Me was released in hardcover in early fall 2007 to much fanfare, garnering coverage from a wide swath of the business, technology, and mainstream media.

There may well be as much to be learned from studying the process of creating We Are Smarter Than Me as there is from studying the book’s contents. The authors say that there were certain aspects of the project that surprised them, namely relating to how the collaboration took place. “We had anticipated that most of the submissions would come through the book wiki,” they say, “when in fact the discussion forums, podcasts, related blog posts and in-person comments were all substantial sources of content for the book.”

There are two important lessons to be gleaned from Libert and Spector’s experience with their wiki book: The first is that the more opportunities individuals are given to participate, the more likely they will be to take advantages of those opportunities. Because We Are Smarter left the door open for participants to contribute using podcasts, blogs, and other Web 2.0 technologies, the product gained measurably more insight than it would have if it had been exclusively a wiki book, or a podcast book, or a blog book. The second, perhaps more salient lesson is that you never know precisely what to expect.

Companies eager to implement Web 2.0 for collaboration purposes in the enterprise and those vendors with products to sell will be better positioned to succeed by preparing themselves—to the extent that they can—for the fundamental changes that these technologies will bring to their organizations. Experts and executives predict that Web 2.0 will completely rearrange the traditional hierarchy of an organization by bringing the boardroom and the mailroom (and everything in between) a little closer together. As these technologies are only now gaining a solid footing in the enterprise, it is hard to be sure at this point what will work best, so flexible organizations that are capable of adapting will find the speed bumps they must traverse in the process a bit more navigable. And finally, companies that shy away from the corporate openness that the free flow of information naturally mandates will find themselves left in the dust as competitors put their newfound wealth of knowledge and insight to work.

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