Review: Wikinomics

August 10th, 2008 · No Comments

Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything is written by Don Tapscot and Anthony D. Williams, two consultants from the New Paradigm “think tank.” It is a broad overview of the new web economy and what “Web 2.0” means for the future. They also boldly apply these concepts to non-web related production and espouse the global application of their four principles:

  • Being Open
  • Peering
  • Sharing
  • Acting Globally

Armed with these four principles they then proceed to attempt to do several things. First, they try to show examples of when these principles have been effective. Second, they endeavor to explain why these principles have been effective. Finally, they attempt to explain why these principles are universally applicable and will be defining characteristics of success in the future. They are very successful in two of these attempts.

One of the strongest attributes of the book is the authors’ clear and obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter. They clearly believe what they are preaching. However that enthusiasm becomes advocacy many times, and these are the points at which the book is its weakest. While I found their accounts of companies that had succeeded with these principles fascinating, and I thought that their analysis of why they were successful was very insightful, they would then proceed to explain why companies that do not comply are doomed, which I found off-putting.

At the end of each chapter they give advice, followed by dire predictions that typically look something like this (from page 63 of my edition):

The old, ironclad vessels of the industrial era will sink under the crashing waves, while firms that create highly nimble and networked structures and connect to external ideas and energies will gain the buoyancy they require to survive.

While I understand that consultants are paid to advocate their positions, a dose of moderation would not go amiss here. I agree with many of their tenets and think there are advantages to be gained; I do not think the authors come anywhere near providing an adequate case to make their grandiose claims about the future. The reader walks away from the book with the implication that every company that doesn’t go open-source, give away some proprietary information, and start a wiki immediately is a dying dinosaur.

Meanwhile, the sections in which they draw these “conclusions” are very brief and are mainly full of vivid language and short on facts. In fact, the entire first chapter is just a mellifluous flow of praises of their methodology, which nearly put me off the entire book. They don’t actually get to refuting the critics of their principles until Chapter 10, which they still do not do adequately enough for my liking. It is clear that their target audience is mainly those who are desperately ready to be converted.

Not to get too involved in challenging their claims, I will touch on a few points to illustrate my complaint. First, in the same breath that they say how every company should be perusing this approach, they also say that one of the big advantages to these companies is the goodwill they garner as a result. If these procedures were to become standard operating procedure, then no one would gain much goodwill from doing something that was seen as commonplace.

When they really go awry is when they start talking about manufacturing. For example, while the content on how they feel the boom in China relates to “wikinomics” is interesting, their notion that commerce has been adversarial for so long and only just now are the “wikinomics” advocates bringing collaboration to them is ludicrous. Commerce always has and always will work best when both parties involved work together and are happy with the results. To act like it took the “Web 2.0” generation to bring about these concepts is simply absurd.

Given all this you might find it surprising that I highly recommend those that are exploring business on the web read it. While in my estimation they fail to make their case for these principles being universal and mandatory, their enthusiasm for describing the companies that did it and why they succeeded is fascinating and insightful.

As I mention, I was nearly put off by the first chapter, however once they actually got into describing how these companies do business I really got interested in thinking about what needs to be proprietary and what doesn’t. Even more compelling is their description of why people like these products and what “Web 2.0” really means. All of these things are vital to those of us trying to capitalize on this new arena.

I simply advise that you try to take their input with a grain of salt when they enter advocacy mode. Typically you will find that to be rampant in the first chapter and in their “advice” sections at the end of each chapter. Other than that, it is an engaging read, and their vision is compelling. My expectation is that we’ve been in a pendulum swing where we’ve been too proprietary, and those who can harness collaboration can gain advantages in the market. In twenty years it may be the case that everyone has bought into collaboration and those who keep their secrets to themselves have advantages. Either way I think for navigating the near future, Wikinomics can give valuable insight into the modern “net generation” and the products that service them.

Categories: Books · Reviews

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