Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Gathering Wisdom from Web 2.0

Mining wisdom from Web 2.0 collaboration

From The Statesman
ND Batra

The wisdom of the government is limited by its hierarchical structure, which restricts free flow of ideas, thus creating myopia. That is perhaps one of the reasons for recurrent man-made catastrophes, for example, terrorist attacks. Every time there is an attack, the government makes the same analysis and comes to the same conclusion.

If the government were to seek information from all available sources, not only from its officials who are segregated into departments and agencies but also from the people at large, intelligence, forecasting and decision-making could be better and problem-solving more socially satisfying. That is equally true of large corporations and institutions that have a top-down power structure, which may be good for command and control but is destructive of creativity.

In a knowledge-driven, networked world, creative ideas can arise anywhere. An innovative solution to a problem could be the consequence of collaboration among a dispersed group of people working on a project or the work of a genius. Wikipedia is an example of how collaboration can create a pretty good compendium of knowledge. A similar collaborative platform could be created for predicting future events, for example, a market bubble or a terrorist attack.

The most important point in the age of social networking and collaborative problem-solving is that geographically dispersed people and those who traditionally worked in isolated dens now have the means, such as constantly evolving digital platforms, to work together and enhance innovation, creation of knowledge and engage in cutting-edge scholarship. This is what is called Web 2.0, the next evolutionary stage of the Internet that makes social and collaborative networking such as Facebook, YouTube and blogging possible. Keeping in mind that crowds can be fickle and unreliable (vide Julius Caesar), it is still possible to tap into the collective wisdom of a large group of people for problem solving.Of course, we need both higher-level creativity and routine knowledge-creation and innovation. The modern world of globalised business cannot survive without higher or lower ends in the knowledge supply chain. We need the wisdom both of experts and of the masses. While you have to pay for experts, the wisdom of the masses can be mined via Web 2.0 collaborative platforms. In their own interest, many corporations are facilitating and encouraging their employees to build networks, share ideas with their peers and collaborate on projects even though they are divided by time zones, continents and cultures. Corporate blogging is one of the means of gathering grassroots intelligence.

In order to maximise innovation, collaborating organisations, governments and institutions need to break barriers of poor communication and insularity without which dispersed expertise cannot be leveraged to create new ideas that can be turned into products and services for marketing or increased organisational efficiencies.

In the digital age, poor communication occurs because of structural and bureaucratic barriers and because people who have expert power in one field fail to appreciate new ideas in others. One reason why intelligence agencies could not foresee the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US was poor collaboration. But that situation has been remedied to a great extent. Sometime collaboration fails because it is limited to very few people in partnering organisations, so if some key expert decides to leave, the network is weakened or collapses.

To build collaboration for innovation it is essential to make an inventory of individual expertise and figure out how they complement each other and bring them into an informal platform to share ideas.The challenge is how to integrate innovation activities and unique knowledge around the world as effectively as global supply chains integrate labour, raw materials, finance and marketing. Networking has the potential to combat inertia because a node (a knowledge group) cannot sit idle too long.

Collaboration need not be limited to regional or national organisations in the age of outsourcing, when it is possible to have a 24-hour workday with three or four knowledge hubs spread across the globe. Work must flow constantly across times zones, building on shared brainpower, each knowledge hub validating (checking upon each other’s errors) and adding value to the work done by the other, thus, hastening testing, vetting, shaping and completing the final project. In cyberspace, time zones can be turned into an asset.

Another challenge for IT geeks in knowledge hubs is to create a system that is capable of aggregating and accessing available sources of knowledge and mining all modes of information, whether audio, video, cartographic or textual in the form of a visual map, a landscape.And finally an IT system should be capable of customising knowledge as per individual or group needs. For example, an IT system should be capable of automatically converting a report about a disaster such as an earthquake or a terrorist act into various formats, such as newspaper, radio, television, as well as for mobile devices such as cell phones to which editorial value can be added subsequently. This is a way of bringing experts and non-experts together to utilise each other’s wisdom.

In the age of Web 2.0 globalisation, leadership success lies in exploiting and pooling brainpower within the organisation as well as outside and creating an environment of enthusiasm and participation for solving problems, whether of energy or insurgency.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

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