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The New Era Of Mass Collaboration

2017 May 7

In 1991, Linus Torvalds released the Linux kernel on the Internet and invited anyone who wanted to download, use and modify it. In an amazingly short amount of time, a community built up around Torvalds’ initial code and their contributions transformed it into an operating system that rivaled those of even corporate giants like Microsoft.

Even now, it seems somewhat of an unlikely story that such a fledgling effort could make such a transformational impact. Yet today, open communities have become so pervasive that the term “proprietary,” to a large extent, just means the stuff we build on top of open source software. And we’re just beginning to scratch the surface.

Today, we’re entering a new era, where open platforms are going beyond just software and starting to take hold in everything from scientific research to manufacturing. In fact, as our ability to connect to ecosystems of talent, technology and information continues to increase exponentially, the solution to many tough problems is becoming more social than technical.

Linux With A Bounty

When Alph Bingham first began his career as a research scientist in the late 70s, he immediately realized it would be much different than graduate school. As a student, he and 20 others were working on the same problems and coming up with varied approaches, but as a professional scientist he was mostly on his own.

By the late 90s, the Internet was becoming a transformative force and Bingham, now a senior executive at Eli Lilly, saw an opportunity to do something new. He envisioned a platform that would work like “Linux with a bounty” by putting problems that his company had been unable to solve on the web and offering rewards to anyone who came up with an answer.

The program, called InnoCentive, was an immediate success and Eli Lilly spun it out as an independent company. To date, it has solved hundreds of problems so difficult that many considered them to be unsolvable. In fact, one study found that about a third of the problems posted — many of which had been around for years or even decades — are solved.

The key to InnoCentive’s success has to do with an observation Bingham and his team noticed early on. The solutions almost never came from the field in which they arose. So, for example, chemistry problems were rarely solved by chemists. Yet by opening up the problem to others in adjacent fields, such as biologists and physicists, they became more tractable.

The Rise Of Consortia

Just as Innocentive has shown that you can more effectively solve problems by exposing them to multiple fields of expertise, it’s also becoming clear that really big problems can benefit from being exposed to multiple types of organizations.

Consider the Joint Center For Energy Storage Research (JCESR) based at Argonne National Laboratory. Recognizing that the search for a next generation battery technology was beyond even the vast resources of the national labs, the Department of Energy created a more wide ranging consortium that includes academic institutions and private companies.

This seems to be an idea that is catching on. The manufacturing hubs set up during the Obama Administration were designed along similar lines and have generally exceeded expectations. The Institute for Applied Cancer Science at MD Anderson has also adopted the model to come up with revolutionary new cures.

So far, most of these consortia have been government led, but private industry seems to be warming to the model as well. For example, tech giants recently set up a consortium in partnership with the ACLU to develop standards for ethics in artificial intelligence. It is, they recognize, a problem too big for any of them to solve alone.

Open Data For Science

For the last few centuries, the scientific method has driven progress and prosperity. Essentially, you get a hunch about something, devise an experiment to test it and see what results come back. When your hunch turns out to be right, your field advances and you add to the world’s knowledge. When it’s wrong, you throw the work away and try something else.

But what if there was another way? What if you collected all of the data, not just the stuff that you could immediately make sense out of, and combined it with other people’s data? Or better yet, what if you just collected data without having any idea what it meant and then used big data and machine learning techniques to find patterns?

That, essentially, is the idea behind the The Cancer Genome Atlas. “We said, ‘Let’s gather data along with some basic analysis, publish it and allow the scientific community to study it,’” Jean Claude Zenklusen, who helped create the project, told me. “We did this because we believed by releasing the data in this way, we could tap into the collective expertise of thousands of researchers across a number of fields and accelerate innovation.”

This approach has already spread to other areas, such as materials science and is beginning to transform how science is being done. There is, potentially, an even greater shift is that needs to take place in the business world.

Collaboration As A Competitive Advantage

The HITECH Act of 2009 signaled a new era for medicine. In one fell swoop, the federal government sought to jumpstart the modernization of healthcare by promoting and offering funding for the transition from paper to electronic health records. For many, it was considered the most important component of healthcare reform.

However, it soon became clear that interoperability was a major hurdle. Without a single data standard to match, manage and protect patient information across all the various enterprises within the healthcare ecosystem, digitized records are of little use.

In the past, the path forward would be clear. Allow a battle of attrition until one standard became the “VHS” or “Microsoft Windows” of healthcare data and firms would build their strategies accordingly. Yet the data giant Experian is doing exactly the opposite, working to create software that is able to link all of a patient’s data, wherever it may lie in the system. “Interoperability and portability are key,“ Jennifer Schulz, Group President at Experian told me.

Ten or twenty years ago, this strategy would have seemed odd, but these days it’s becoming the norm. Consider IBM, whose core strategy for Watson involves making it easily accessible for startups to build businesses on top of or General Electric’s Fuse program, which seeks to co-create solutions for big problems with smaller companies and entrepreneurs.

The truth is that today the possibilities of many technologies far exceed the ability of any one firm to capitalize on them. So the key to competitive advantage is no longer to optimize value chains, but to extend capabilities through collaboration, either directly or through platforms. In a networked world, the best way to become a dominant player is to be an indispensable partner.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

2 Responses leave one →
  1. May 8, 2017

    Collaboration has drastically changed over the years. And I don’t feel it’s for the best. If we want to focus on doing something that we’ve always done, the way we collaborate today works well. If we want to innovate and be an industry leader, how we collaborate today in a hyperspecialized world makes it difficult for us to do so.

    Mass collaboration can yield mass failure.

  2. May 8, 2017

    Thanks for sharing, Chris.

    – Greg

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