Thursday, November 15, 2007

ink-impressed tek-biz bound-bulk-pulp review “Wikinomics” by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Wiliams


“Wiki” is a fun and funny-sounding new coinage (for one thing, it’s got “icky” inside; for another, it’s a Hawaiian-ish hula-skirted adaptation of the English “quick”; for a third, it suggests the classic Florida kitsch of mermaid water park “Wickee Wachee”; for a fourth, it conforms to the klassic borscht belt diktum that hard “k” sounds kill ‘em every time up in Poughkeepsie, Schenectady, and Skaneateles, and out in Kankakee, Kokomo, and Kalamazoo). As a prefix, “wiki” combines nicely with many older words (such as the “nomics” Greek-derived rump end of “economics,” which hasn’t recovered from the semantic abuse it has endured ever since it got lashed into the idiotic ideology-driven ersatz-scientific term “Reaganomics” more than a quarter-century ago).

Wiki rocks and rules these days. So I totally understand why Tapscott and Williams worked it into the title of their book (note that for the rest of this post, I’ll refer to Tapscott alone as the prime author, since he’s obviously driving the show on this). Though I prefer the term “mass collaboration” in their subtitle, because it more accurately describes the concept they put forth. And “mass collaboration” sounds less trendy (the term “wiki” feels so 2007, just like “groovy” is so very 1967, hence so very likely, in just a year or two, to be an embarrassing reminder of our cultural weakness (or is it a strength?), for gratuitous ad-hoc linguistic invention (a weakness I also share, as will be demonstrated once again in just a sec).

That said, “Wikinomics” is a highly readable and research-driven book, and I recommend it to anyone who wants a good overview of new frontiers in the virtualization of the world economy. In the book, Tapscott does a fine job both of laying out the core organizing principles of this new competitive environment (“openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally”) and explaining how these principles are expressed in several ongoing developments (wikis, blogosphere, social networking, open source software, online idea marketplaces, customer-driven product hacks, virtual scientific communities, externally extensible open platforms, collaborative B2B value chains, hypermatrixed enterprise teaming environments). Though I find some of Tapscott’s coinages awkward or semi-opaque (e.g., “ideagoras,” “prosumers, “new Alexandrians,” “platforms for participation”), he is at least trying to give us a new vocabulary that fits these emerging phenomena. Of course, “wiki” is opaque in its own way, and “blogosphere” still sounds strange, but they’ve achieved currency, so maybe it’s a matter of the poetics of the coinages somehow fitting the cultural moment.

Though I enjoyed “Wikinomics,” it leaves me slightly queasy, because it glosses over one of the most important issues in this new economic order: how difficult it’s becoming to make money in a world where everybody is giving everything away for free. For IT industry analysts/pundits/authors such as myself, this hits home in the most visceral way. Any of us who has a blog faces the same challenge every time we post: deciding which thoughts should be published for free to all comers, and which should be reserved for paying customers. Or, if we choose to publish everything we learn/think, we must decide how we can leverage our visibility, reputation, analytical chops, etc. into paying gigs (e.g., consulting, speaking, etc.). Or, if that paying gig (i.e., an actual job-job) is secure, we must decide how far to go with the blogging, podcasting, etc so as to complement and not compromise that kritical kash konnection (anybody who has premium licensed access to my Data Management module at Current Analysis will notice that I go very deep, and very prosaic, and quite prolific on all things BI, CPM, DW, DI, DQ, MDM, GRC, etc….and there’s only a tiny content overlap with what I put in this blog, or voice on the Dana Gardner et al podcasts….that’s by design….it’s the same guy doing it all, but presenting different sides of Jim Kobielus…the blog is my outlet for coloring outside the lines…and occasionally for personal junk like the poems….and gratuitous wordplay of my own devising). Triki-triki, dis nu wiki-wiki.

These general thoughts occurred to me while seeing Tapscott present on this topic in the keynote at the recent Business Objects conference in Orlando (in which I participated in my core job-job role as an analyst for Current Analysis). That was where I, like all other attendees, received our own komplimentary kopies of “Wikinomics” (and a great laptop-ready tote bag—thanks Business Objects!). Tapscott did a fine job discussing the topic, and illustrating it with engaging slides and videos, talking about the wonderful new economy that is fueled by everybody giving it all away for no charge. Of course, Tapscott mentioned the Radiohead Gambit (which I saw mentioned yet again in the Wall Street Journal this morning—that paper says that around 60 percent of downloaders of “In Rainbows” are paying squat—Messrs. Yorke et al. dispute that number, but don’t reveal the actual). And Tapscott trumpeted his own “Wikinomics” book as another example of this trend, in the literary sphere, stating that the book is a wiki-based online “peer production” work in progress, which anybody can edit through

All well and good, but I noticed a few things. For starters, the ink-impressed bound-bulk-pulp version of the work has a cover price (US $25.95, Canada $32.50); named co-authors (Tapscott and Williams), who I suspect are pocketing royalties; and a publisher (Portfolio/Penguin Group) that underwrote the project and, no doubt, is accruing a tidy profit from it. For another, Tapscott was standing there on stage speaking to the assembled at a conference sponsored by a major software company, and I suspect he wasn’t wagging his tongue for free. For a third, I have no doubt that Business Objects was also paying for the “free to attendee” books, which, like the tote bag and delicious food (thanks again, Business Objects!), contributed to a splendid time for all. Finally, cracking open the book, I can’t help but be impressed by Tapscott’s discussion of the ample speaking engagements, sponsored research projects, and high-visibility consulting gigs that keep him and his organization gainfully employed. Cool….he’s doing well…no problem with any of that.

But something he said from the stage at the Business Objects show gave me pause, and he went into greater detail on it at the start of his book. He mentioned, as a prime example of “wikinomics” invading the “old economy,” a Canadian gold-mining firm (Goldcorp) that, a few years back, decided to publish, for free through its website, all of the geologic data pertaining to its mine in northern Ontario. The reason Goldcorp (spurred by CEO Rob McEwen) took this radical move was that its own staff geologists had increasingly come up short in their attempts to find new gold deposits on the property. So, in March 2000, McEwen took the controversial move to launch the “Goldcorp Challenge,” under which the firm offered $575,000 in prize money to anybody anywhere who could, by examining the now-free, now-public geologic data, tell where the gold most likely lay on their property.

As Tapscott tells it, “News of the contest spread quickly around the Internet, as more than one thousand virtual prospectors from fifty countries got busy crunching data.” And he quickly cuts to the chase: “The contestants had identified 110 targets on the Red Lake property, 50 percent of which had not been previously identified by the company. Over 80 percent of the new targets yielded substantial quantities of gold. In fact, since the challenge was initiated an astounding eight million ounces of gold have been found. McEwen estimates the collaborative process shaved two to three years off their exploration time. Today Goldcorp is reaping the fruits of its open source approach to exploration. Not only did the contest yield copious quantities of gold, it catapulted his underperforming $100 million company into a $9 billion juggernaut while transforming a backward mining site in Northern Ontario into one of the most innovative and profitable properties in the industry. Needless to say McEwen is one happy camper. As are his shareholders. One hundred dollars invested in the company in 1993 is worth over $3,000 today.”

Cool—essentially and effectively, the contest is based on the premise of “you mine our data, so we can better mine our mine.” But, thumbing through that section of the book, I see no further mention of the prize money, or the criteria for awarding it, or the ultimate winner(s), or whether it was split among multiple contestants, or whether any of them was also awarded with these now-valuable shares of Goldcorp stock, or whether any of them were later hired by the firm to be full-time staff geologists. I have no doubt that Goldcorp made a handsome payout to the winner(s) of the contest, but it would have closed the loop—in Tapscott’s account—if the name(s) of these pivotal gold-data-miners were mentioned.

This thought, sitting there listening to Tapscott, lead to another. This Goldcorp Challenge strikes me as a clever approach for extracting free geologic consulting services from many people, with only one (or a few? how many?) of the consultants seeing a payday, based on results delivered (literal paydirt identified) rather than effort expended. OK—the unnamed (in Tapscott’s book, at least) contestants seemingly knew the rules of the game (literally), so it was all on the up and up (apparently). So how is that a problem?

What struck me was the ironic parallel with Tapscott’s “Wikinomics” book, and with the whole “wikinomics” economic environment that it describes. Flip the book open to page 4, and look at the facing “Subtitles” page, and here’s what you’ll see.

On page 4, “[W]ith ‘Wikinomics,” we’re making a modest attempt to reinvent the concept of a book. You’ll notice that the final chapter, The Wikinomics Playbook, has only fifteen words: ‘Join us in peer producing the definitive guide to twenty-first-century strategy on” It is our hope that this book will transcend its physical form to become a living, real-time, collaborative document, cocreated by leading thinkers.”

On the facing page, this: “Books have a title page. This is our subtitle page. In what we believe to be a first, we’re listing a few of our favorite suggestions for subtitles gleaned from a public online discussion held the week of June 2, 2006. We received more than one hundred great suggestions in the first forty-eight hours. To our collaborators—you know who you are—we extend our most sincere thanks.”

“You know who you are”?!?!?! Why not list the actual names (can’t be more than 100, after all) right here, in the printed book (it has 324 pages total)? More to the point, why not give a flat fee or cut of the royalties to whoever (if anybody) won that challenge (i.e., whoever suggested the final “How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything”)? And, while we’re on the topic, why not publish revised editions of the printed for-a-price book that incorporate revisions submitted by others through, and cut those people in on a share of the royalties (while giving due credit)? Sharing that gold would be a nice gesture, wouldn’t it?

All of which brings me around to the core point of this post, which is the intensifying collision between this newfangled virtual “wikinomics” world where we give it all away for free, and the oldfangled real day-job world where we receive the legal tender necessary to pay the bills. Clearly, most profits from our participation in the blogosphere are non-monetary, so it falls squarely into the “I’m marketing the brand of me” realm of “wikinomics.” I’ve been toying with various terms to describe this new phenomenon that don’t tie it to blogs or wikis or any other particular new “Web 2.0” technology. Months ago, Dana laughed when I suggested “probonosphere,” but now that strikes me as sounding like an obscure primate species. “Freebysphere” is cute, but sounds like a hot new Christmas-gift toy that we’ll discard in early January.

Right now, I’m leaning in the direction of “gratisphere” (though the linguistic purists will be irked by my combining a Latin word, “gratis” (i.e., free) with a Greek word “sphere”). And, as its opposite, I’m thinking of committing even more heinous linguistic offense: “career-o-sphere” (where we earn our daily bread). In other words, more and more of us are contributing for free on the gratisphere, and attempting to leverage those efforts to cash in via the career-o-sphere. Certainly, I’m doing that, as are most self-respecting analysts, since we all realize we must regularly gave away free samples of our brain power (e.g., blogs, podcasts, being quoted by reporters, jotting off uncompensated articles for online pubs, accepting unpaid invitations to speak at industry conferences) in order to remind the world that we’re here and that we’ve “got the goods” (a prime/premium feed of which they can access through separate channels).

Increasingly, IT publishers/editors are leveraging the gratisphere to their economic advantage (hey! free content from a leading analyst), which is no surprise (but which complicates the analyst/author/writer’s career-o-sphere equation, especially if, like Jim Kobielus, you’ve been paid for most of your published works for most of your career). In the pundit’s life, one must constantly ponder whether each new freebie-article request is a smart promotional move, or whether it delivers you more deeply into the chump-o-sphere. It’s a tricky balance, but more of us are working it out. As Pete Townshend once memorably put it, “This is no social crisis—just another tricky day for you.”

Getting back to Tapscott’s book, check out the quote he excerpts on pages 206-207 from Om Malik (“a well-read blogger and founder of GigaOmniMedia") and then Tapscott’s own immediate, brief, defensive, and inadequate retort:

  • Malik: “I wondered out loud if this culture of participation was seemingly help[ing] build businesses on our collective backs. So if we tag, bookmark, or share, and help or Technorati or Yahoo become better commercial entities, aren’t we seemingly commoditizing our most valuable asset—time. We become the outsourced workforce, the collective, though it is still unclear what is the pay-off. While we may (or may not) gain something from the collective efforts, the odds are whatever ‘the collective efforts’ are, they are going to boost the economic value of those entities. Will we share in their upside? Not likely!”
  • Tapscott: “Calling it exploitation goes too far.”

Wait just a second. No…it’s not going too far…if people’s contributions are delivering real value that somebody/somewhere across the virtual value chain is cashing in on, then the issue of equitable reward distribution is a legitimate topic for discussion…and if some are profiting immensely from (named) others’ efforts without cutting those others a piece of the pie, how is that not, on some level, akin to “exploitation”? So, in terms of distributional equity, in the abstract, the career-o-sphere should, on some level, acknowledge and compensate the gratisphere for its contributions. But, of course, that’s a tricky-as-hell proposition to work out in the real world, given the complex shifting membrane between these cyber-celestial spheres.

Many of us “subsidize” our gratispherical activities from the money (salaries, savings, etc.), time (evenings, weekends, vacations, coffee breaks, leisure, etc.), and other resources (professional connections, deep domain expertise) we’ve accrued from our career-o-spherical. We’re exploiting ourselves.

Leave it at that.