The promise of computer-led collaboration long pre-dates the late 1990s commercial internet. Earlier that decade, the potential for enterprise efficiency and growth through content sharing among expanded internal networks led to the creation of knowledge management initiatives. The principles behind the initiatives were laudable — improve access to expertise across silos, facilitate innovation, and reduce product development cycles. Unfortunately in most enterprise organizations, the reality was just the opposite. Too often, knowledge hoarding rewarded employees far more than knowledge sharing, and business units did not perceive enough benefit to promote collaborative behaviors. As the saying goes, culture eats strategy for lunch — despite the new technological tools, organizational culture reinforced status quo behaviors.
It’s hard to create effective top-down initiatives that promote collaboration. Similarly bottoms-up collaborative production efforts can run into roadblocks, like falling victim to the tragedy of the commons, wherein everyone pulls from a common resource without contributing back. Prominent exceptions like Wikipedia exist, but struggle to attract and retain a wide pool of contributors.
And yet, a robust collaborative economy is emerging. This can’t be attributed to a sudden spike in altruism, although the millennials may be more conscious of consumption than other generations at the quarter-century mark. Rather, technology has for the first time allowed for services to spring up that promote sharing of resources with financial benefit to the sharer. Think of what Airbnb has done to disrupt the hotel industry (which is starting to feel the impact) and how UberX and Lyft have transformed getting a ride. Collaborative behaviors are solving real problems by disintermediating established product and service providers that acted as middlemen in transactions. While the new services continue to experience growing pains, disruptive models are clearly emerging.
As Zachary Karabell observes, the rise of the collaborative economy is disrupting existing industries and laws. Many established businesses are trying to put the genie back in the bottle, alongside governments struggling to keep up with policy. But there’s no going back — whether it’s ride sharing or lodging or learning, collaboration fueled by an exchange of value is here to stay.The promise of unlimited internet-driven collaboration was a Utopian ideal, and many important projects like Wikipedia and open source software reflect that early promise. But the relatively recent ability for a peer-to-peer value exchange is creating a broad, collaborative economy of differently-mediated services. Smart corporations from the traditional economy are launching rapid experiments, alongside their consumers, to re-imagine their businesses for this new, collaborative normal.
Photo credit: Via Tsuji