Buzzwatch: Sum up the basic changes you’re talking about.
Mr. Shirky: My five word summary of the book is: Group action just got easier. The thesis is that humans are natively good at doing things in groups. We know how to share, collaborate, converse. So whenever you get a new tool or technology that makes it easier for people to share or collaborate, you’re going to see a lot more of that going on. The Internet-and increasingly, mobile phones-have provided us with a platform of huge new tools and services to do exactly that. So we’re seeing now the first phase of experimentation and people saying, “What can we build on top of these tools?”
Buzzwatch: What does a CEO need to understand about the ways collaboration is changing?
Mr. Shirky: There are two different big things. The first is: Inside your hierarchy is a network. This isn’t about networks replacing hierarchies-we’re still going to have managers and promotions. But particularly for large companies, there’s a lot of value that can be unlocked by letting employees work with one another. There were two research groups at IBM separated by the Atlantic Ocean-one in Armonk and one in the U.K. They were working on the same problem, but of course they didn’t know that. They employed a tool IBM built called Dogear, a tagging tool. These two groups discovered-without any managerial oversight-that they were working on the same problem. They said, “Why don’t we get together and collaborate?” That’s the kind of enterprise value that can’t be driven by the manager. In any complicated field, the people you’re managing know more about the problem than you do. This is a way of getting at that value.
The outside message is: Your customers, who have previously been relatively separated from one another, with their principal connection to you, may start becoming your competitors or your collaborators. CEOs need to be in the position of understanding what might happen and then try to work out strategies for the threats and for the opportunities.
(Emphasis added.) Recently I e-mailed a senior exec-friend caught up in a high profile battle being covered by the media that he needed to get Kithbridge.com to establish some new media monitors/blog tracks. Even though I am an investor in Kithbridge, I wouldn’t know if he did or not, but increasingly the idea of allowing the virtual mobs to gain size and accumulate influence without even attempting to see them coming is close to corporate malpractice.