A Wealth of Networks – Value Creation for the 21st Century

11 09 2007

Given all the hype lately about Facebook, MySpace and the lot, it’s a good thing to expand on networks…beyond “social networks” and get into networks that can really deliver the intended outcomes your stakeholders want.

So let’s start with a quote from someone who wrote the book on “The Wealth of Networks.” 

Information, knowledge, and culture are central to human freedom and human development. How they are produced and exchanged in our society critically affects the way we see the state of the world as it is and might be; who decides these questions; and how we, as societies and polities,come to understand what can and ought to be done.

For more than 150 years, modern complex democracies have depended in large measure on an industrial information economy for these basic functions. In the past decade and a half, we have begun to see a radical change in the organization of information production. Enabled by technological change, we are beginning to see a series of economic, social, and cultural adaptations that make possible a radical transformation of how we make the information environment we occupy as autonomous individuals, citizens, and members of cultural and social groups.

It seems passé today to speak of “the Internet revolution.” In some academic circles, it is positively naive. But it should not be. The change brought about by the networked information environment is deep. It is structural. It goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets and liberal democracies have co evolved for almost two centuries.”

From Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks”

Back in 2005, while serving with an international computing society we completed a business plan for our digital library that would guide us in its continued transformation as a vital product for our stakeholders. One of the chief outcomes from that effort was the recognition of what the next evolution of this library ought to be – a networked information resource.

This library was a jewel in the crown. Becoming one of the first digital libraries that generated revenue from its archived publishing operations, the library went through a number of innovations in its history from paper to digital via CD-ROM and then again from static digital storage to a dynamic online digital experience.

But we saw the need to innovate again only this time we felt that the digital library experience was going to fundamentally change. Instead of “search and find” we felt a digital library was going to “put people in touch with knowledge and how to apply it.” That “solutions-oriented” experience was likely to combine a static archive of digital peer-review content with the rich contextual value of real people with real experience and expertise. If we could combine the two, it would add dramatic product differentiation by turning a traditional library experience on its head. The value our library would ultimately serve would be helping people “find and apply” solutions to their personal needs and possibly create an experience even Google might have trouble replicating through the leverage of our members’ technical expertise and passion.

Visionaries like Yochai Benkler, Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard, and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of “The Wealth of Networks,” was a revelation to me during this time. His notion of “peer production” as a new means of content production (be it a product or service) was straight out of the successes of the open source software movement as my early posts this past Spring outline.

A good example of a networked information resource we studied is a digital library hybrid called Merlot that combines a digital library of peer-reviewed content with online community features that provides a superior contextual experience that changes every time you visit. Merlot exists to improve the effectiveness of teaching and learning by increasing the quantity and quality of peer reviewed online learning materials that can be easily incorporated into faculty designed courses.

Why Networks Are Important and What Makes Them Different?

In the next series of posts we shall explore “the wealth of networks” but not from Benkler’s book (but please read it here). Instead we shall focus on the importance of “networks” as a strategic value creator. Combine that with the examples of “open business models” and “content co-creation” practices outlined in earlier posts and you will begin to grasp the tremendous potential of open innovation.




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