Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Collaboration or Anarchy?

Not too long ago, the Wikipedia model of almost anarchy-like collaboration resulting in a polished, usable product was dismissed as unrealistic. Nowadays, Wikipedia is regarded as a credible source of information, able to compete with traditional encyclopedias - matching the likes of Britannica for quality and vastly surpassing it in terms of quantity. While it may be easy to dismiss the success of Wikipedia by saying that it is based primarily on the specific characteristics of the particular need that it attempts to meet, to do so would be to ignore the potential of collaboration across myriad industries as a new business model that can potentially deal with a lot of the issues that organizations will face going forward in these still uncertain times.

A perfect example of another industry that has begun to take advantage of the potential for volunteer collaboration is the mapping industry. On the one hand, there are the traditional mapping companies (which are the main suppliers of the maps on personal GPS devices) and on the other are the giants of the online and software world. It seems that the traditional mapping players seem convinced that they will be able to produce better and better maps by simply improving the things that they have always done. Want to make the image on your GPS device more realistic? Instead of only programming major 3D landmarks onto a map, program entire city-scapes in 3D. Need more Points of Interest (POIs)? Buy more POI databases. What would the alternative be? Skip the programming of 3D landmarks altogether and take real-life pictures of the streets that people will navigate through - a la Google maps. Or even better, take pictures of streets AND rely on public images taken by others and collected from sources like Flickr and compile the two to enhance the detail of the images - a la Bing maps. If you want a more complete POI database, allow users to add POIs directly onto the map, for all users to see.

The question that is clearly being posed is whether a collaborative method is better than a proprietary one. Taking a look at the success of companies like Apple and Amazon, which are becoming increasingly proprietary, it would be foolish to suggest that collaboration always trumps the alternative. However, it would be equally foolish for companies in ANY industry to simply ignore the potential of collaborative trends (or any other trends for that matter) simply because of a prior bias, especially if it presents an opportunity improve a product or service. As businesses begin to slowly grow after a terrible few years, they should be careful not to fall into the same traps that they once did. Business should focus on their core offerings, on maintaining profitability and should be careful about pushing too hard for growth too quickly. Therefore, if social collaboration, for example, allows you to offer a better product, at higher margins, with a smaller workforce, then it should be considered.

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