Time once again for an installment in the long-running <italic>Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything</italic> saga, in which we analyze Don Tapscott's startling 300-page tome. This time around we cover The New Alexandrians.
A bit of background: When the library at Alexandria burned to the ground in 642, it had over half a million volumes, a stunning achievement for its day. (By contrast, in the year 1,500, the largest library on Earth had only 1,000 volumes.) The library's collection was built by (admittedly forced) sharing: Visitors to Alexandria were obliged to allow scribes to copy any documents they carried. (Sometimes the visitors got back their originals...sometimes they got back the copies. <italic>C'est la vie</italic>.) The result was a spectacular public resource that could serve as a jumping-off point for a wide range of research.
Don Tapscott believes that we're heading into a new Alexandrian age–an age in which research data is publicly shared rather than hoarded. Are hard-headed companies succumbing to an attack of altruism? Will beads and Birkenstocks triumph? Read on.
There are (it turns out) several quite selfish reasons you might contribute your hard-won data to a publicly-available database. First, the data set you need may be too expensive to develop on your own. If you need the whole enchilada, it may make sense to cooperate with like-minded peers, each of whom can develop a part of it. Second, you may be concerned that competitors will patent parts of the dataset as they are discovered. If all the competitors in a space share this concern–if they're all afraid of being locked out of potentially lucrative parts of the data–they may find themselves building a new Alexandria.
Finally (and this is a requirement if the other two reasons are going to work), you have to believe that you've got a competitive advantage that can be exploited "on top of" the dataset–i.e., that you can use it to build a product no one else can. If the data itself represents an intrinsic competitive advantage to you, by contrast, you're unlikely to feel very generous with it.
Example: The Human Genome Project brought together the major pharmaceutical companies in a ground-breaking cooperative effort to map the human genome. Big Pharma had all three reasons listed above–in particular (and this represented a significant and I'm sure difficult insight) the realization that the human genome was an input to drug discovery (their core competence) rather than something that represented intrinsic competitive advantage to them.
When you think about it, open source projects taste a lot like Alexandrias. Take Linux: IBM alone has hundreds of programmers working away on it–and yet it is freely available to their competition. IBM (like other Linux contributors) views Linux as infrastructure on top of which it can build other kinds of value, not something of value in itself.
So there you have it. Don Tapscott calls it a "pre-competitive information commons" (which as a buzzword leaves something to be desired) and it results from hard-headed business calculation--you don't have to wear Birkenstocks to love it.
Next time: Platforms for Participation