The Wikinomics of Learning

The whole world’s collaborating – and that raises big questions for learning professionals, suggests Steve Rayson in his review of  "Wikinomics”, by Tapscott and Williams. As always my family took a large pile of books with us on holiday this year to catch up on our reading. This year's batch of books was larger than normal thanks to Harry Potter.

One of the books that caught my particular attention was Wikinomics by Tapscott and Williams. There are so many books being published about online collaboration, social networking and Web 2.0 that I felt it would be difficult to come up with anything new. Particularly so when books take so long to hit the bookshops, given the pace of change they run the real risk of being outdated before they are read. As this book states, the body of human knowledge doubles every five years – which means by the time you get to the last chapter, you’re further behind the times then when you bought it.

However, Wikinomics provides a useful reflection on recent developments and makes four key points which raise important questions for learning professionals.

Point 1: collaborate to win

The authors argue that there is a new economics being generated by the collaborative web. The old ways of organising companies “do not afford the level of agility, creativity and connectivity that companies now require to remain competitive.” To flourish in this new economy the book states you need to follow four key principles:

  • Being Open
  • Peering
  • Sharing
  • Acting Globally

Community is at the heart of their approach, which can be summarised as losers launch websites, winners launch communities.

There is a strong focus on the growing potential of open source software. They point out that Linux, the open source operating system, has become very popular and is used by bodies as diverse as IBM, BMW and People’s Republic of China. They also reference the importance of open source content such as the California open source textbook, and MIT's free courseware. Open source software is cost-effective for even the largest companies. IBM invests over $100m a year in Linux development but gains from over a $1bn in user community development. IBM says Linux is a viable platform with 20% of the costs of a proprietary operating system (but they would…).

Questions for learning professionals:
  • Are you looking seriously at utilising open source options, from tools to content? Open source tools are becoming industry standards, such as Audacity for audio editing and Moodle for learning management are open source. Are you paying for something you can get better for nothing?
  • Do you build learning sites or do you build learning communities? Does every learning site should provide users with the ability to collaborate and contribute?

Point 2: you’re always in beta (and that’s good)

Importantly the book highlights the very profound difference between open source and traditional software development. Open source software is more collaborative and focuses on rapid development followed by a focus on implementation, tracking and support. There is far less of the traditional approach on user requirements and design specifications. This traditional approach means you can spend many months before a line of code is written and by then the world has moved on. Rapid prototyping and flexibility in adjusting software is key. The old define, develop and deliver model is proving very rigid and inappropriate to the needs of fast moving organisations who don’t want a change control notice for everything not in an early design specification.

The changes in technology are ushering in a new iterative and collaborative approach to innovation which involves rapid incremental innovation. Every product is in perpetual beta mode. The classic example is Wikipedia. Every day changes are made to this encyclopedia, which means it is better today than it was yesterday. The old design, develop and deliver model would only produce a new encyclopedia every year and many items would be out of date before it was published. Forget the build and ship approach to development - It takes a heartbeat to become irrelevant in this environment.

Questions for learning professionals:
  • What’s your model for getting elearning done? Document heavy design phases, or rapid prototyping and refine based on feedback? What’s more effective?
  • Are you claiming your e-learning is delivered, when the conversation is just getting started? How will you provide the means and tools to learners in your organisation to sustain the learning experience?

Point 3: you don’t need to invent to innovate

A lot of people take standard tools and technology but are innovative in their application. Mashups on the web are an example, such as combining Google Maps with Craigs List to see where houses for sale are in the US.

Companies are opening up their APIs and watching what people do with their content. The authors point to the growth of creative commons licences such as Flickr rather than traditional copyright. Increasingly business models involve giving a lot away and building large user bases quickly.

This is leading to a culture change, the authors argue. A new age of collaborative science is emerging that will accelerate scientific discovery and learning through:

  • rapid diffusion of best practices
  • availability of just in time expertise
  • powerful tools for conducting research
  • positive feedback cycles

Questions for learning professionals:

  • Are you innovating or re-inventing? How are you combining what’s already working and being innovative about its use?
  • Are you finding ways to conduct research and gain feedback as you develop, not after you’ve delivered?

For us at Kineo, Rapid elearning is all about working on templated structures that embed good design principles and enable content to be developed quickly. We’ve recently combined survey monkey to embed survey functionality in elearning modules – so elearning mash-ups are possible…

Point 4: get ready for some very open plan offices...

The authors see long term transformations in the culture, structure, process and economics of work. They argue there is a shift away from closed, rigid, hierarchical relationships towards self-organising and distributed structures. These distributed networks function through tools such as chat, email, wikis, blogs, desktop sharing, etc. More than 40% of IBMs employees don’t work in a traditional office.

They argue there will be a new way of working. Individual desktop tools will be replaced by collaborative tools. Wikis are replacing intranet as these give users more control, and they are able to instantly edit items. Wikis hand over control to users to create their own way of organising knowledge, processes etc. The authors see the ability to use wikis will be a required job skill - although in our experience there are many cultural issues still to be overcome.

Key questions for learning professionals

How will your elearning survive in this emerging culture? When the user has control and can edit everything, what are they doing to make of elearning? How are you ensuring that your elearning is better today than it was yesterday? Could you consider wikis, RSS feeds, survey tools and communities to enrich the experience? We’ve been experimenting with these and other tools at Kineo to go beyond traditional elearning with very interesting results.

Get Wikinomics in our bookshop.

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