Five videos to help explain the New Game in business

To be a winner in the New Game requires an understanding from the bottom to the top of an organisation that if you are going to make best use of people’s talents to provide the goods and services folks want, in the way they want, you will - sooner or later - have to embrace three key concepts:

  • Openness (of information, innovation and internal/external communication);
  • Collaboration (among diverse groups of people including employees, customers and communities);
  • Sustainability (since this is the only viable future for business and civilisation).

The web and advances in technology allow us to organise ourselves in a fundamentally different, and more productive way - bringing people and information beyond old boundaries together to solve the challenges we face as businesses, societies and an interdependent planet. Some sectors will have to face this challenge sooner than others, but the direction of change is now clear and even those who feel they have some years’ breathing space need to accept that change will hit every sector eventually, as nimbler competitors who “get it” emerge to challenge the status quo.

But among senior and not-so-senior people in traditional organisations who can see or sense the arrival of these changes, many feel they are a “generational thing”. They believe their current senior management and overarching culture just aren’t ready for these ideas, so they do not push the agenda, preferring instead to wait until some mythical young turk steps up to take the reins of the business. But push we must. Because even in organisations where change is likely to be slower, decisions you make now could impede your ability to succeed in future.

One reason many are reluctant to take on the mantle of ‘change agent’ is that they don’t feel they have appropriate ammunition or language to persuade sceptical boards and colleagues of the need to move in this direction. Well, here are five talks which provide a good primer on the key rules of the New Game. They do so with clarity and passion, as well as containing some great quotations and examples to counter detractors’ arguments, bring waverers on board and inspire.

1. Charles Leadbeater on Innovation (TED)

Business thinker Leadbeater explains back in 2005 why decentralisation, collaboration and openness are key to successful innovation, and why incremental innovation is not enough.

2. Clay Shirky on Institutions vs Collaboration (TED)

In another prescient 2005 talk, social media guru Shirky talks about how the social web will bring vast changes to the organisational landscape.

3. Ray Anderson on the case for Sustainable Business (TED)

Floor-tile entrepreneur and former environmental offender Anderson provides a compelling business, as well as moral, case for pursuing sustainable business. It’s worth watching in full, but those turned off by equations might like to forward to his conclusions, which start at the 9min 10sec mark.

4. Jeff Jarvis on “What Would Google Do?” (YouTube)

Author and journalist Jarvis gives a comprehensive talk on how businesses need to change, based on his book “What Would Google Do?”. There are some great concrete examples of game-changing ideas for different sectors.

5. Tim Berners-Lee on the “Next Web” (TED)

The fact  the inventor of the web has thrown his weight so passionately behind the idea of open, linked data is crucial - particularly since those you’re trying to convince will likely have heard of him. In other words, his is a highly credible name to drop when you’re making that New Game business case.

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Time for a New Game in Politics

As many commentators have pointed out in recent weeks, the scandal over MPs’ expenses reflects a deeper crisis of confidence in the state of UK politics. Further, the election of Barack Obama in the US on a manifesto of radical change and the protests in Iran clearly show the clamour for  political transformation stretches beyond our shores. But these events have also presented a rare opportunity for voices calling for change to make themselves heard beyond the elite circles normally interested in such issues.

In the last of this year’s Reith Lectures (broadcast yesterday), Harvard professor Michael Sandel gave a compelling analysis of the problem. The world faces dire environmental, social and economic challenges with which our political systems seem wholly ill-equipped to deal. The narrow market-driven focus of politics devalues democratic debate by framing complex moral questions and value judgements in purely monetary terms. For example, he cited the over-reliance on cost-benefit analysis in making critical policy decisions. “It is a spurious science that shifts decision-making from democratic politics to technocrats,” he said. “Democratic government is radically devalued if reduced to the role of handmaiden to the market economy…We have come to think of public life as an extension of markets, as economics by other means. But a healthy democracy requires that we think of ourselves less as consumers and more as citizens,” said Sandel.

I was reminded of another talk I heard earlier this week on TED, where US educationalist Liz Coleman called for radical reform in liberal arts education. Coleman believes the goal of academia should be a system that promotes a breadth of interdisciplinary knowedge and a yearning to engage with real-world issues, rather than to create an elite of experts focussed on ever-narrower specialisms. This transformation, she argued, was also crucial to reinvigorating public engagement with politics. “There is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators,” she said.

In his Reith lectures, Sandel points out that if we are to succeed in creating a ‘politics of the common good’, then we must reinvigorate public debate and address the complex moral questions that underlie many of the monumental challenges we face. However, he offered few practical suggestions of how we might bring this new politics about and notably failed to examine the burgeoning potential of the Internet to facilitate debate and organisation among citizens.

Others, however, are certainly thinking along these lines. In his recent TED talk,  respected social media guru Clay Shirky illustrates how the Internet and social media tools are already creating more bottom-up engagement with the political process - for example, empowering people to oversee the smooth running of elections by monitoring and uploading evidence of voter-suppression techniques at polling stations, or giving them the opportunity to organise and make their voices heard on particular issues.

But such bottom-up action also needs to be supported by top-down initiatives to bring the political process closer to the citizenry.  This means introducing much more transparency across government, and putting in place mechanisms that allow public participation in decision-making. Again, the Internet and online social media today make this a much more realistic proposition. In The Independent last Friday, MySociety’s Tom Steinberg wrote: “One of the most pressing information problems the Internet can help solve is the problem of producing better laws, and new laws that more people have seen before they’re hit over the head by their practical consequences.”

Steinberg’s essay was part of a series the paper is publishing as a prelude to Monday’s Reboot Britain conference, which will explore how we can “take advantage of the radically networked digital world we now live in to help revive our economy, rebuild our democratic structures and improve public services”. Other essays in the series (by the likes of Lee Bryant, Andy Hobsbawm and Paul Miller) explore many more practical suggestions for transforming political engagement and tackling our national problems.  The Guardian’s Activate 09 summit today (tagline: “Politics, economics, technology and society: Building a better future through the internet”) has been pursuing a similar agenda, and I’ve been following tweets with interest [edit: Roo Reynolds has now produced a great summary of the event here].

I’ll be attending Reboot Britain next week and look forward to hearing even more good ideas. But ideas on their own aren’t enough. Those of us calling for change need to build a momentum that becomes unstoppable, and that involves presenting a compelling vision of what our politics could be - a vision that captures the public imagination and puts the onus on politicians to respond with meaningful and lasting structural changes. Let’s show people what an engaged citizenry can really mean.

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The solution to bad terms of service? Creative Commons and clarity

One of the big barriers in the way of commercial content creators (be they businesses or individuals) adopting web-based applications and services is the onerous terms and conditions these often present. Blanket ‘rights grab’ clauses are common, with even big names like Facebook and Google falling foul of the practice.

Talk to such companies and they brush off such terms as necessary legalese. You need to waive all your legal and moral rights to everything you post on/upload to/share with/create using their service, they say, because they need the right to handle your work and to copy and display it on the site without putting themselves at risk of breaching any laws. *Of course* they don’t intend to issue that song you posted as a chargeable digital download or use it as the soundtrack to an advertisement for their site without paying you. *Naturally* they’re not going to start flogging T-shirts based on that design you uploaded. And it would be *nonsense* to suggest they’d claim ownership over something you used their service to collaborate on with others.

It’s certainly true that if they did, they would likely face a wave of bad publicity and would probably also be on pretty dodgy legal ground, particularly if they’d given public assurances that their terms should not be interpreted in a particular way. But many have not made such assurances, and in some cases the threat of bad publicity might be outweighed by commercial advantages. If a business is on the brink of collapse, for example, there is a clear incentive for them (or for any organisation acquiring them, which may have entirely different values to those of the original founders) to attempt to claw back whatever revenue they can within the law.

That’s why anyone posting valuable content is going to be increasingly vigilant about exactly what they’re signing up to, as evidenced by this interesting and much-shared post from the Advancing Usability blog earlier this month, which compares the terms and conditions of video hosting sites in Canada. The lesson for service providers here is that if you want your social web application or service to attract professional content creators in future, you need to be clear that you’re not going to hijack their work. The problem is that legalese and plainspeak are mutually exclusive. In most cases, companies do not want to hijack users’ work, they simply want to cover their backs. But legal teams, used to the click-through-without-reading culture, seem to have got into the habit of being cautious to the point of complacency.

So how can service providers strike the right balance? The best example I’ve seen to date is from Aviary.com, an innovative start-up service offering a suite of web-based creative design apps. Aviary makes use of non-commercial Creative Commons licensing to ensure it has the permissions necessary to store and display creations users have posted publicly on the site without claiming commercial copyright over the works. Users also have the option to keep their work private if they choose, in which case the CC licence won’t be applied. When I spoke to Aviary co-founder Michael Galpert a few weeks ago, he told me: “We’re applying the CC licence to publicly-displayed works because we don’t want to be confrtonted with any legal problems. But in order for an artist to have full control over their work they will  sometimes want to retain full copyright, so we also give them that option.”

More importantly Aviary’s terms and conditions, while appearing in the usual legalese, are accompanied by a layperson-friendly sidebar clarifying exactly what those terms mean in practice. Galpert said: “Usually people assume because a lawyer’s approved something they can just slap it on their site. But the user or customer doesn’t necessarily understand the legal-speak. So even though a company might have their users’ rights in mind, it doesn’t come across that way when all that appears is a bunch of impenetrable jargon. Avi [Muchnick, co-founder and CEO] was intent on making our terms clear to everyone. Fortunately, he went to law school so he understands the legalese. When the document came back from the lawyers he slogged through the whole thing himself, translating it into everyday language to make sure it was legible for anyone coming to the site.”

The sidebar summary includes such unambiguous statements as:

  • “You own your content.”
  • “Some content may be licensed under Creative Commons.”
  • “If you allow another user to make a derivative, you still own your work.”
  • “You can download anything on the site for personal, non-commercial use only. Other uses are not OK (unless you purchased the work from the creator).”

My guess is that when presented with a choice of comparable services, users will increasingly opt for those displaying fair, clear and unambiguous terms like Aviary’s. Which gives me  heart  the trend will catch on. Who knows, perhaps the new game for lawyers might be to move away from their traditional plays of occlusion, obfuscation and obscurity. Now that really would be progress.

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Twitter without the twaddle - the *real* benefits

There’s been a lot of twaddle written and spoken about Twitter recently. Casual observers can’t seem to grasp what it is or why it’s important. I’ve seen it described as a microblogging service, a social networking site, a glorified chat room, a geek crossover fad, the latest security nightmare and an addictive waste of time. Most of which may be partially true – but only in the same way it’s partially true to describe the Internet as a playground for geeks, the latest business battleground or a den of vice. Because, like the Internet, Twitter’s very simplicity and openness has supported the rapid, organic, and community-driven development of many different uses - some pointless and mundane, others anything but.

What is it?

Ostensibly, Twitter is an online service where people can post messages (usually called tweets or twits) of up to 140 characters, as well as sending public or private messages to specific users. These tweets vary wildly in nature – among other things they may contain life-streaming, sales pitches, links, conversation… breaking news, bot-spam or wild speculation… questions, solutions, announcements and jobs… insight and wisdom, or swearing and sobs. Sometimes they even contain impromptu poetry. A smattering of celebrities and a lot of technical, media and freelance creative types use Twitter.  So do many, many people calling themselves SEOs or social marketing consultants (most of whom seem to be to 2009 what a lot of so-called web designers were to 1996 – the “fake it and hope you make it” brigade). You can peruse intimate details of the lives of people you don’t really know. All in all, not exactly Earth-shattering, as much of the uninformed coverage has pointed out. And if that were the end of the story of Twitter, the coverage would be right. But it isn’t.

Amid the hyping and sniping of the past month, another message has also been getting through, quietly but consistently. It is coming from the growing community that is regularly using the service, learning what it can do and building on it. Our message is that Twitter isn’t just another Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn, and offers benefits beyond all these and other such services on all levels – personal, professional and social. I’ve seen and responded to a lot of tweets in the past few weeks by decidedly non-geeky, non-celebrity-obsessed folk (among them quite a few senior business types), dipping their toes in the water and wondering out loud what all the fuss is about. It seems more primitive and less functional than some of the other online social networks you’re already familiar with, you say. First, don’t give up yet – most of us felt like that when we first signed up. But I want to tell you why that common first impression is wrong and what you need to do to realise the real benefits of Twitter.

Facebook and LinkedIn: Behind closed doors

Most other social networks are like private castles, with walls of varying height and thickness. Once you gain entry, you are free to explore the castle’s rooms, corridors and gardens, seeking out, befriending or connecting with individuals and groups you feel some affinity with.

Facebook and LinkedIn - the two social networks most familiar to business folk – both operate in this way. You build a core set of mutual connections and once connected you can see what those people are up to via your personal news feed. Then there are special interest groups you can join as an adjunct to your core connections - such as campaign groups, professional groups or personal interest/activity groups. By and large, Facebook tends to be used mainly (though not exclusively) for personal connections – far-flung family, long lost friends, former colleagues or new dating/gaming partners – while LinkedIn is geared up specifically for professional networking.

Generally on these networks, interactions take place behind virtual closed doors. There are often ways to open windows onto the wider Internet, but the default position is usually to leave them shut. The result is these communities also tend to be fairly closed. For example, say someone was interested in fishing, like my father-in-law. He might search LinkedIn or Facebook and find dozens of groups that look like they might be relevant, each with a number of members. To reach all the people who might share his interest, he’d have to join each of these groups and duplicate information among them. Even then, he’ll only be reaching people inside the castle walls. In addition, many groups on Facebook and LinkedIn are used more as a public declaration of people’s interests, rather than being vibrant mini-communities in and of themselves.

Why is Twitter different?

Twitter is different because the default position is one of openness and diversity. This is no castle – it’s a bustling town square. Unless users specify otherwise, their messages appear on what’s known as the public timeline – a constant stream of every user’s tweets. You don’t need to be a Twitter user to view these messages – Twitter has its own search function, and public tweets will also show up on standard web searches. The system has also been designed to integrate openly with the wider Internet and mobile phones. Other third-party services like Twitterfone and SpinVox extend Twitter’s use to the voice telephone network too, transcribing short calls and tweeting them on your behalf.

As a result of this openness and ease of integration with other services, it’s convenient for people to tweet wherever they are and whatever device they’re carrying. It’s easy to get information into Twitter and out again using standard web file formats, whatever device or network connection you’re using. Because of this, people like it and use it more often. You can even use it as a sort of ‘glue’ to stick together other online services, media and information. As a result, Twitter’s tentacles have extended into just about every corner of the converged, connected infocomms landscape - websites and blogs, other social networks, web applications, SMS and instant messaging systems, mobile and fixed voice networks.

Twitter also has an open API (application programming interface), which for the non-technical among you means that third parties – be they individuals, community-driven collaborations or commercial ventures – can hook into certain parts of its system freely and develop their own applications or add-ons, for example to tailor access for particular user preferences or devices (such as iPhones or Blackberrys) or to extend Twitter’s functionality in new and interesting ways. And there’s potential for much more to be built. (One development I’m particularly looking forward to is some really powerful real-time visualisations of public opinion built by tracking the content of tweets – something that could prove both enlightening and disconcerting for politicians and businesses.) And since it’s fairly quick and easy (and often low cost) to build applications and add-ons, developers can respond rapidly to what people want (and are probably already tweeting about). There are already hundreds of apps and add-ons, (some of which can be found here, here, here and  here). In essence, the raggle-taggle development community surrounding Twitter represents customer responsiveness at it’s most agile. This stuff is at the cutting edge of the new game, and Twitter is seeing the results in the speed of its own community-driven evolution.

Fuelling the flow of information and the formation of ad-hoc communities

Twitter has no walls or rooms. You can follow or be followed by anyone. Connections do not have to be mutual. You could follow 100 people and be followed by 100 entirely different people (although most users find mutual connections to be the most beneficial). (There are the usual privacy features to block undesirable followers, although if you’re on the public timeline they can still see your tweets.) People can only send private messages to mutual connections, but an ‘@message’ - which is what most people use most of the time unless they need to say something genuinely private - can be directed at any other user (by starting your message with ‘@username’), whether you’re following them, being followed by them or neither. These @messages also show up on the public timeline, in searches and to all your followers.

This simple, open structure has given rise – organically – to a very complex system that is still evolving. Essentially, Twitter massively accelerates flows of information among a diverse range of intersecting individuals, groups and organisations. It allows important (and not so important) information to percolate quickly and reach vast numbers of disparate people to whom it might be of interest or relevance.

It allows people to form ad hoc connections and communities with like-minded individuals and groups quickly and easily, in a way that seems far more fluid and natural than the walled rooms of Facebook and LinkedIn. It lets people build meaningful relationships of both a business and personal nature, with the one often leading surprisingly to the other. Some people still maintain it’s better to separate personal and professional identities online, but on Twitter the two seem to coexist fairly happily, bar the odd comical mishap.

Interfacing with the real world

Many physical meetings and events have been initiated, organised, publicised or otherwise helped by Twitter, including the global Twestival earlier this month, which raised over $250,000 for charity and catapulted the Twitter community into the news,  and yesterday’s Amplified 09 ‘Network of Networks’ meeting in London, where Twitterers and other online social networkers from diverse fields and sub-networks met to share ideas about ways collaborative and social media could help individuals, organisations, people and the planet. More grassroots collaborations like this will happen as social media becomes even more widely adopted. Businesses could benefit enormously from getting involved, but they’ll only do that if they become part of the community. And increasingly that community uses and revolves around Twitter.

But as well-as facilitating real-world meetings, Twitter is also becoming the de facto virtual doorway to any event on the planet in real time (or close to it). For example, if you track the name of any conference, meeting, sports or newsworthy event, chances are there’ll be somebody there (often a few people) tweeting interesting points, developments or observations.

At Amplified, for instance, all attendees are encouraged to tweet after every session they attend, giving a snapshot of the event from many different perspectives. And, increasingly, people may also be streaming live video from their mobile phones from such an event using a service like QIK (announcing and hashtagging the livestream on Twitter first, so those interested can find out about it). Such technologies are only going to become better integrated, higher quality and easier to use – there’s really already nothing to stop someone developing a one-button smartphone application that knows where you are (either from your calendar or via a location service), sends a tagged tweet to announce you’re streaming from the XYZ conference and then launches your QIK or similar streaming video application. Soon a lot more people, not just technically-savvy types, are going to be doing this sort of thing.

Essentially, Twitter is the first popular social network (or, more accurately, open social networking  *platform*) that allows anyone to converse with anyone else about anything and from almost anywhere, to quickly find others with similar interests or concerns, and to tune in to what everyone is saying (or seeing) at particular times. Plenty of applications track the most popular ‘trending topics’ on Twitter in various categories, too, so you can keep your finger on the pulse.

How does it work in practice?

At the moment, Twitter provides its services at no charge to either users or developers, a major reason for its rapid, organic growth. If it makes a ham-fisted job of “monetizing” (it’s in the process now) , or its technology infrastructure is unable to keep up with growth (it has a history here), there may yet be a mass community exodus to one of the open-source Twitter clones that are starting to spring up, such as identi.ca. That said, there’s room for other players following an open model – since they should be able to integrate fairly seamlessly with one another. However, I suspect Twitter will be a stayer because there is great loyalty and patience among its long-standing community (which I count myself among). This is almost entirely due to the fact that it was users – more than Twitter itself – that built the service into what it has become. Twitter’s openness enabled open community, and the open community responded with innovation.

Valuable information spreads quickly thanks to the concept of the retweet (RT). That’s where you pass on a link, question or piece of information that you’ve seen somebody else tweet about, because you think it may be valuable or interesting to others. People may also see one of your tweets and retweet it themselves. Information of value therefore spreads rapidly and exponentially.

Another key concept is tracking. There are no ‘groups’ as such on Twitter, at least not in the way you might understand them. You can set up an ongoing Twitter search to ensure you know whenever any public messages are posted that contain a particular term or terms that interest you, such as ‘fishing’. You will then start to see tweets from users who share your interest and you may decide to follow them. (Twitter has its own search function, but many of the third-party applications you can use to access Twitter also have tracking and searching built in.)

But Twitterers found that just searching for words often brought up irrelevant results (e.g. tweets talking about ‘fishing for compliments’). To filter out such irrelevancies, and index certain tweets, the community evolved a convention known as hashtags whereby people prepend a ‘#’ to a word or words that categorise the tweet. For example:

Here’s a crow using bait to catch a fish. http://tw0.us/ie [video] #fishing

A friend of mine just posted a site for his #fishing invention: A power bait mold. Check it out… http://troutberry.com/

In a business context, though, you could, for example, track what people are saying about your company in real-time, as well as tracking topics or technologies you’re investigating or researching. Indeed, this process can be fully automated with very little effort (including redirecting specific tweets to the relevant people in your organisation via email if they’re not using the service). But while tracking offers benefits in itself (and you don’t even need to be signed up to Twitter to do it), you won’t realise the overall benefits of the service unless you join in the conversation.

Building your network

So how should you build your network on Twitter? There are many different answers. Some rush to get as many followers as they can with no heed to who they are. Others prefer to limit theirs to a few mutual connections. Fewer, high-quality connections means you can build closer relationships, but lacks reach. Larger, less discriminate collections of followers means you have more reach, but you also have to put up with a lot of noise. (One of my Twitter contacts Lee Stacey [@lstacey] is currently conducting an experiment under the alias @tweepl to gauge the value or otherwise of large indiscriminate followings.) But the best way to build a valuable network on Twitter seems to be organically and steadily.

The key is variety. It’s perfectly possible to form a clique of people who share your profession, your opinions or your interests, but doing so would simply be replicating the familiar model of existing chatrooms and forums. Most people find following a more diverse range of people is better. And the way Twitter works makes this happen quite naturally. You might start off just connecting to people you already know, and perhaps a few news feeds. But then you’ll start seeing snippets of interesting conversations that your contacts are having with other of their contacts (because you’ll see their @messages to others), and so you begin to follow those people as well.

Let’s say you’re also tracking a few hashtags or keywords – you’ll see tweets from other people who share a personal or professional interest. You may decide to extend your network further by following them. As long as you are posting tweets regularly and engaging with other people openly, you are likely to get followed or followed back by quite a few people. (There are a fair few bots and spammers on Twitter, though – as a general rule check the Twitter home page of anyone following you and look at their ratio of following to followers. If it’s suspiciously high and/or tweets don’t seem genuine or are obviously spammy, you probably won’t want to follow back, and you may even want to block them. Certainly don’t be tempted to click on any hyperlink in their bio, or shortened URL in any of their tweets – which may be some sort of malware.) On the other hand, if you follow a lot more people than you’re followed by, but rarely engage with people or tweet anything of interest, then you’re likely to struggle to find people of interest to follow you back.

Engage openly and reap rewards

Twitter will only yield its most valuable benefits if you use it in a spirit of openness and collaboration - that is, if you participate in a way that will earn the respect of other followers, which is essentially by contributing openly and honestly with a fair balance of give and take. No one minds a bit of self-promotion here and there, but giving it the hard sell tweet after tweet is a no-no, and shows you don’t understand the medium. If you’re following a large number of people, it’s impractical to engage with everyone all the time. But even if you only check a few recent tweets on your friends’ timeline, there will be one or two from people that you can probably offer some help or advice to, or maybe just chip in a bit of friendly banter. And doing so can result in some fruitful professional and personal connections.

Building your network steadily and engaging with people openly pays big dividends. Once you have a reasonably large and diverse network of followers then you can fruitfully ask questions of your network, tapping into what James Surowiecki famously calls “The Wisdom of Crowds”. You might, for example, ask for information, sources of inspiration, people to help with a particular project or job, or your network’s views on a specific issue, idea or proposal.  And since your questions will also appear on the public timeline, you may find you receive useful answers from beyond your existing network, helping to extend it even further. Hashtagging them will make that even more likely. In other words, Twitter enables the kind of speedy, ad hoc collaboration across a large, diverse pool of knowledgeable and talented people that many businesses and individuals are crying out for.

Chance is a fine thing…

Even more important, I believe, is the fact that Twitter encourages serendipitous connections in a way that just doesn’t happen very much on other networks, because of their fundamentally walled nature. When you’ve been closely involved in a particular environment for a long period of time, you tend to network among people who are essentially very similar in outlook and/or background to yourself.  The nature of Twitter encourages plenty of chance encounters, so you meet interesting people with valuable ideas and opinions outside your usual circles. Engaging in conversation with these people broadens your network, your perspectives and your pool of ideas, inspiration, knowledge, talent and friends. That’s something all of us need to do, particularly in tough times like these.

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Open IP, social responsibility and the new game

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post over at Steria Exchange outlining why the threat of litigation over digital copyright infringements highlighted the need for a ‘commercial commons’ – a pool of information, software, media and other resources that could be shared freely among individuals and organisations. This could benefit everyone enormously – making open web collaboration easier and helping businesses  to innovate products and services far more rapidly and cheaply than in the past. Some of the mechanisms to enable this are already well established, including initiatives such as open source and Creative Commons. But while these point the way forward, they will need to be built upon and championed more widely.

Opening up intellectual property also has clear social benefits. The front page of Saturday’s Guardian reported that Andrew Witty, the new boss of drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), plans to put all its proprietary chemicals and processes that could help find new drugs for neglected diseases into an open ‘patent pool’, so they can be freely shared by researchers everywhere. In an unprecedented multi-pronged initiative, the company is also slashing the prices of drugs for the developing world, reinvesting 20% of profits it makes in the poorest countries in hospitals, clinics and staff for those countries, and spearheading a collaborative hunt for treatments to tropical diseases.

This bears out what I wrote in my opening post on this blog about the need for enlightened businesses to put social and community responsibilities ahead of short-term profit. Witty clearly understands this and is to be highly commended for making a radical move that marks out GSK as a pioneering corporate player of the new game. As he told the Guardian: “I think the shareholders understand this and it’s my job to make sure I can explain it. I think we can. I think it’s absolutely the kind of thing large global companies need to be demonstrating, that they’ve got a more balanced view of the world than short-term returns.”

Commenting on GSK’s move in Monday’s Telegraph, George Poynter echoed this message, arguing the credit crunch could herald a new moral economy. “In a new environment in which earnings growth is less available to avaricious shareholders, competition begins to have looser parameters and the demand on directors is not so much to prosper as to survive. GSK may well be recognising that its own survival, and that of its competitors, is dependent on the survival of its markets. To serve its markets is, in the long run, to serve its shareholders. This is an important development, because it implies that the market economy has to adjust structurally before corporate morality can follow,” Poynter wrote.

I share Poynter’s view, but the reasons for GSK’s move go beyond both altruism and the long-term survival of its markets. This will also boost the company’s reputation among the public and governments, as well as putting pressure on its competitors to follow suit (which Witty has called for). More profoundly, it illustrates how social responsibility is central to the hunt for talent. As a global player in the pharmaceutical industry, GSK needs to attract the best scientists and researchers in order to stay ahead of the competition. Most of these people would relish the chance to work on projects, or for a company, that helped to solve pressing real-world problems, rather than just developing lucrative products to line shareholders’ pockets. At a stroke, Witty has made GSK the most attractive pharma company for the most ambitious and talented researchers in the world.

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An opening gambit…

If you think the purpose of business is to make money, you’re wrong. The purpose of business is to best serve its customers and the communities with and within which it operates. Those that succeed in doing so will make money as a by-product, but that is neither their purpose nor their right. Our failure to remember that, and to enshrine it effectively in our regulatory and political systems, has led to catastrophic results – for people, the planet and most recently the public purse. The current financial crisis shows all too clearly what happens when business forgets that its first duty is to its customers and communities – and not to profit. At some point, the bubble bursts and you’re left with a sticky mess.

Recession is here and depression, it seems, may be just around the corner. But when we emerge from this downturn, the most savvy and successful organisations will be playing a new game where flexibility, openness, agility and collaboration are what count. The new game is being made possible by new technology, but it’s being driven by people – and their desire to create a more dynamic and sustainable business world that fosters good ideas and supports talented people.

Companies must also put what the jargonistas call ‘corporate social responsibility’ at the very heart of their organisational strategy, not just as a glib clause in their ‘statement of corporate values’ or marketing literature. There are people who pooh-pooh this as unattainable and idealistic. They maintain ‘ethical business’ is an oxymoron. They say it is unrealistic to expect companies to engage in activities unilaterally that would make them less profitable or competitive.

More enlightened businesses, however – including some of the world’s leading organisations – recognise things like sustainability, open collaboration (both within and beyond the walls of their organisations) and the need to attract talented people are connected issues that they have to take very seriously indeed. They don’t think doing so will make them less profitable or less competitive. Quite the opposite: they realise it is absolutely critical to their long-term success. They know they must operate in a way that balances the needs and concerns of a wide range of communities, many of whom will increasingly be socialising, collaborating and sharing information online – including their customers, their employees, their suppliers, their partners, campaign groups and ad-hoc online coalitions.

I have been arguing many of these points for over a decade, but we are now reaching a tipping point for their acceptance and adoption. Yet many businesses, individuals and legislators are woefully uninformed about and unprepared for the changes they need to make. What do they need to know to start playing? What moves should they make, how quickly and in what order? Are they fit enough? What are the obstacles on the course? How much luck do they need? What’s the cost of entering? How should they put together their teams? How do they win? Who’s already got a head-start? In this blog I plan to explore the rules of this new game, as well as commenting on other connected developments and conversations (and I hope starting some). Some of the answers  are out there, others still need to be articulated, developed or formulated.  But one thing’s certain – you’d better not take your eyes off the board.

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