June 2008 | Commentary | Supply Chain Perspectives

Our Wiki, Wiki Ways

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The best way to move forward in these challenging times is to innovate collaboratively - emphasizing the quality of openness and the values of networked connectivity, shared knowledge, and rapid information exchange.

Humanity has generally been successful when "we the people" act in concert - but we didn't arrive at the "we" factor overnight.

Adam Smith's detailed illustration of needle-making in 18th century Britain sparked a revolution in productivity. His division of labor called for workers to specialize in specific functions.

One worker, for example, might concentrate on making the eye of the needle; another might get stuck honing the point. "I made this needle" became "we made this needle."

This huge labor change made Britain rich, at least for a while. By acting as a "we," Britain dominated mass textile production, became a world supplier, and in many ways anticipated the complexity of today's global supply chains.

Two hundred years later, Alan Turning and John von Neumann's shared computer concepts divided data into input, processing, and output.

With the advent of computers, information became a process involving many a "we." Some people entered data, some processed it, some received it, and some used it.

Information grew dependent on the integration of hardware and software. It also evolved into a global business that called upon the talents of hundreds of thousands of people.

In the mid-20th century, Claude Shannon developed a communication theory that had senders using a device to encode their data. The data was then sent through a channel to a receiving device that decoded the data, and voila!, delivered it to users who turned data into information.

Information was no longer confined to a computer room. In time, with personal computers, it could be shared.

"We" was written all over the forces of computing and communicating. Each year, the speed of communication increased exponentially and the volume of global communication rose rapidly.

The advent of the Internet allowed computing and communicating to work with data on a global scale. This convergence and devotion to the open "we" spawned such jewels as Wikipedia, a collective encyclopedia, and Google, a "we" search engine.

The cumulative value of these combined forces is derived in decentralized points of control - many entities doing their thing and adding to the cumulative effect and resultant profit. The value lies in a distributed and open network, rather than a large power node that tries to dominate.

The network derives its strength from sharing among a broad and accessible community of users. As we increase connections, we increase opportunities, value, and profitability.

For example, UPS, DHL, and FedEx delivery drivers may not be empowered by their trucks. But these workers are greatly empowered by the interconnection among information, supervisors, and customers. UPS, FedEx, and DHL are an enormous collection of interacting people and machines.

Collectively, they are a distributed and powerful organism, more than just a mere business. As such, their job now involves a move toward greater innovation.

True value is achieved when many bodies use and enhance innovation to such an extent that they outrun the marketplace, rather than let their products and services become commodities.

Innovation has therefore become far more than the province of the traditional R&D department; it has become democratized.

Innovation in a "we" world reflects feedback from employees and customers. The solution to today's shortages and increased costs is found within an arena dominated by collective innovation, not by business as usual.

United we grow our business; divided we diminish it.

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