IT drives the biggest change of this century

IT drives the biggest change of this century

Collaboration means more than a warm fuzzy feeling. It will be the central, defining business concept of a new type of borderless organization and the driving economic force in the 21st century.

That's according to Don Tapscott, pundit and CEO of New Paradigm, a futurist think-tank based in Toronto.

Tapscott's new book, Wikinomics, due out in December 2006, was inspired by some proprietary research conducted by New Paradigm and funded by big guns such as IBM, Cisco, SBC and Bell Canada.

The companies forked out a total of $4.2 million (US$3.68 million) for some tangible facts, examples and strategies for using IT to their advantage in what Tapscott calls the new Age of Collaboration.

"This is the biggest investigation ever of IT and business strategy," claims Tapscott.

He says the impetus for the research began three years ago in the wake of his legendary debate at the Forbes CIO summit in San Diego with Nicholas Carr, an equally formidable pundit and author of Does IT Matter?, a book that generated heated debate about the usefulness of IT.

"It occurred to me, as we move into this new period in economic history, that there's liable to be a lot confusion and opposition about how technology enables businesses to be productive and competitive," explains Tapscott.

Wikinomics summarizes some of the main findings of 28 research projects led by a number of leading thinkers such as Hubert St. Onge, author of The Conductive Organization and senior vice-president of strategic capabilities at Clarica in Kitchener, Ont.

All aspects of the research surprised and delighted him, says Tapscott. "We came to the conclusion that not only does IT matter, but it's at the heart of the biggest change in the century that will affect the way we innovate, market and produce goods and services."

He explains that a new kind of corporation is emerging, the open networked enterprise, which is radically different from the previous model. Peer production, exemplified by Linux and Wikipedia, uses the Web to harness millions of brains scattered across the globe, which self-organize into a collective force. "Those two examples are just the tip of the iceberg of a new form of economic production enabled by the Web," he says.

Interconnected and orchestrated through blogs, Wikis, chat rooms, peer-to-peer networks, and personal broadcasting, the Web itself is being reinvented to provide the first global platform for collaboration.

Tapscott says there are yet more areas of research to explore. "Some of the best examples of collaboration are coming out of Asia," says Tapscott, adding that he's in the midst of relaunching the research to explore new areas, and that new companies such as Disney and Upjohn have been invited to participate in the next round.

Wikinomics provides many case studies of different successful forms of business collaboration already under way. One company that is showcased as a shining example of "customer co-creation" in the book is growing by leaps and bounds.

Linden Lab based in San Francisco is the creator of Second Life, a 3D virtual world. The company recently announced the number of subscribers, or "residents" of the world, grew from 100,000 to 200,000 in a mere four months.

"Second Life is not a game," says Karen Clark, development program manager at Linden Lab. She explains that Second Life is often compared to massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, but it is in a category of its own.

"When you enter Second Life, there is no hobbit or soldier or wizard," she says. "There is no obvious point to a virtual world, beyond doing what humanity is designed to do - to explore, invent and have a good time."

One huge difference is that Linden Labs doesn't create any of the content in Second Life. The residents do. The company provides 3D modeling, a scripting language called LSL and other tools to residents that allow them to create objects and give them "volition".

"We decided to put the tools in the hands of the people," says Clark. "So one person builds a car, another may know how to write scripts that causes the car to drive a certain way. Then the avatar, or the in-world representation of a resident, may get in and drive around because of the combination of things working together."

Although this may sound like an online version of Amish barn-raising, Second Life has the same lubricant as the real world: money. Capitalism rules, not altruism.

Clark explains that residents can sell their creations to other residents who may not be as adept or creative with the tools. The developers provide virtual currency, which is valued at about 280 Linden dollars per real US dollar, to facilitate commerce, and even provide a currency exchange and a mini-eBay for barter.

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