An interview with 'Wikinomics' author Don Tapscott

Tapscott talks about how Web 2.0 technologies can change government and democracy

Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles

Don Tapscott co-authored “Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything” with Anthony D. Williams. Tapscott is also chief executive officer of New Paradigm, a think tank focused on innovation. In an interview with Florence Olsen, Federal Computer Week’s managing editor, he talked about the implications of wikinomics for government and democracy.

FCW: How did you come up with the word “wikinomics”? It’s a wonderful word.

TAPSCOTT: It just came to me. A wiki, of course, is software that enables a number of people to edit a document together on the Internet. Wiki was becoming a metaphor for collaboration on a scale that typically extends beyond the boundaries of traditional organizations. I’ve written a number of books that describe important changes in information technology and business. In my book “Digital Capital,” I wrote about the rise of the new Web and the corresponding business model that we call the business Web and, corresponding to that, the governance Web.

FCW: What do you mean by the governance Web?

TAPSCOTT: When it comes to government, bureaucracy wasn’t always a bad term. It was state of the art decades ago. It meant control. It meant a lowering of collaboration costs. An economist, Ronald Coase, argued that we had vertically integrated corporations because they lowered collaboration costs — the costs of getting people to work together. So within the boundaries of the Ford Motor Company was a power plant, a steel mill, a shipping company, a glass factory. Why? The costs of collaboration in an open market were far greater than the costs of doing things inside the boundaries of Ford. Coase won a Nobel Prize for that insight.

He asked a deceptively simple question: Why do large corporations exist? Why do large government organizations exist? It’s because we need them. I’m a big believer in the importance of government. But the issue is how do you orchestrate the capability of government?

We saw the rise of government bureaucracies as the economy became more complicated. We needed procedures. We needed structures of accountability to prevent patronage and corruption. We needed new departments to deal with new things in the economy, like roads and highways. So we saw the rise of large government organizations that paralleled the old Industrial Age corporations that did everything from soup to nuts.

But now the Web is lowering collaboration costs, and it’s possible to think about creating government services through new business models. We’re not talking about privatization or outsourcing or downsizing or anything like that. We’re talking about a profound change in how we think about the division of labor in society to create the services that citizens require. Citizens are not simply customers of government. They’re more than that.

And governments have responsibilities that go beyond market requirements. For example, they have responsibilities to deal with nonmarket problems, such as addressing issues of poverty. That’s kind of abstract, so let me give you an example. In Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles, you’ve got three pillars — business, government and civil society — working together to create something that didn’t exist. Governments have underused data about housing code violations, petty-crime rates, school dropouts, prostitution, stuff like that. Nongovernmental organizations can use that data to spot community problems before they get big. Businesses own apartments and have stores and so on. So those three groups got together and created NKLA — a governance Web.

With NKLA, you’re got a map of Los Angeles that changes as the data changes and communities start to show problems. Groups can intervene before problems grow into crisis situations. This is about delivering services that did not previously exist. We’re in the early days of some really big changes in terms of how we create new services. This has big implications, of course, for chief information officers because the new services are about information technology and the Internet lowering collaboration costs. Every CIO has got to figure out what to do about those changes.

A number of things have matured to create a perfect storm for government. We have an economic revolution under way with the rise of mass collaboration in the economy. There is widespread dissatisfaction not just with the governments that are in power today in the United States and other countries but with the whole model. All the evidence shows that people are not happy, especially young people. But it’s now affecting older generations as well. They feel that they’re not empowered. They’re not engaged. Governments do things that are not relevant to them or that hurt them. So you put all that together, and we could move to a new model.

What does the new model look like? First of all, this is not about electronic government, you know, the electronic town hall. Democracy is more than majority rule. One of the things it’s about is protecting the rights of minorities.

We’ve come up with 18 themes of democracy in the digital economy, and one of them is digital brainstorming. It’s a baby step toward a new model of democracy. By the time you publish this article in May, it will have been publicly announced that one of these sessions will be held in Canada. It’s going to happen in the fall. There will be a three-day discussion among all citizens of Canada. I’m involved in advising them on how to do it.

FCW: We’ll have to say tuned for that. In doing research for the wikinomics book, were you able to learn anything about federal wiki projects, such as the CIA’s Intellipedia?

TAPSCOTT: It’s an amazing thing. I’m sure you’ve seen Clive Thompson’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine about that. He describes this young kid who comes to work for the CIA. The guy wanted to be a computer spook all his life, and he gets there and he’s just dying to get his hands on the CIA’s massive mainframes. Then he finds out the technology is 18 years old and doesn’t have capabilities such as search, so he starts using Google instead and ends up bringing about some huge changes at the CIA. So that’s how that whole wiki intelligence thing got going.

FCW: You write about the wiki workforce. What should federal managers do to prepare for hiring this generation that you refer to as the Net Generation? I know managers are somewhat spooked by this notion.

TAPSCOTT: That’s a $4 million research project that we have under way right now. It’s looking at two things: how the Net Generation changes human resources and management, and how it changes the concept of value and how you create value. You recruit them differently, you train them differently and motivate them differently. You compensate them differently. They collaborate differently. There’s just so much to be learned from these kids.

So the wiki workplace — where do we get started? People think we should start with senior management because that’s how we’ll make it happen. That’s a huge mistake. You’ll never get senior management doing a wiki. So it makes a lot more sense to start with the Net Generation to show how this works.

FCW: You write that mass collaboration, which is the basis of wikinomics, is no panacea. What are the upsides and downsides that you’ve identified?

TAPSCOTT: Mass collaboration enables any organization to get access to the uniquely qualified minds that can solve problems. So say I’m a governor and I’ve got to get hundreds of trillions of gallons of water out of a flooded city. I want to do it in a week because I know that using conventional pump technology would take six weeks. The Web lowers collaboration costs and lets you find that uniquely qualified mind.

 FCW: Then what are the downsides?

TAPSCOTT: Oh yes, the downsides. Not everyone has a uniquely qualified mind. There are lots of average people or below-average people. And what happens to them as the tonic of the marketplace gets brought to bear on every function within an organization because it’s less costly and easy now to find a capable person to do this or that outside the boundaries of the organization? Some people have said mass collaboration will lead to the complete unbundling of all kinds of entities and everybody being a free agent. I don’t see that happening.

The point here is that we need governments to protect people who are not so capable.

So there can be all kinds of downsides. But the biggest problem is that old paradigms die hard. And the way companies are getting into trouble today is not by moving too fast into mass collaboration. In industry after industry, you can see the old model being eclipsed by the new model. So the stakes are high for governments to somehow find the leadership to bring about similar change.
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