I recently received an invitation to attend the VIVO Implementation Fest being held this month in Boulder Colorado. VIVO is an open source, expertise discovery platform for the semantic web. It enables the discovery of research and scholarship across disciplinary and administrative boundaries including across institutions. It does this through interlinked public, profiles of people and other research-related information. The goal is to create a national network of scientists. In the three years since its creation, VIVO has gone a long way toward doing so and the innovations have followed. I think industry could learn a lot from this effort.
Science is complicated; multi-disciplinary science even more so. No single company, no matter how large, is going to have all the expertise and resources necessary to exploit every innovation or discover the next blockbuster product. Pharmaceutical giant Merck realized this over a decade ago in their 2000 annual report:
“Merck accounts for about 1 percent of the biomedical research in the world. To tap into the remaining 99 percent, we must actively reach out to universities, research institutions and companies worldwide to bring the best of technology and potential products into Merck. The cascade of knowledge…is far too complex for any one company to handle alone.”
This is as true for manufacturing and merchandising as it is for medicine. Innovation in all industries still tends to follow the traditional “man of genius” model, which has held sway from Edison’s Menlo Park to AT&T’s Bell Labs. We hire smart people (hopefully a few of them are really smart) give them resources and hope for the best. We stick to a vertical integration model in which internal research and development activities lead to internally developed products that are then distributed by our own company through our own channels. This model is no longer competitive. The world has moved from an environment of knowledge scarcity to one of knowledge abundance, but most of that knowledge doesn’t reside in our own firm. We go to great lengths to hire the best and the brightest, but inevitably, as Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill Joy is fond of pointing out, the smartest and most talented people still work for someone else. That doesn’t mean they can’t also work for you.
Universities and academic research centers exchange faculty and share facilities all the time. This quickly and inexpensively expands the capabilities of a team and institution for the situation at hand, enabling them to undertake projects that would otherwise be out of reach. The exchange of knowledge enriches all participating institutions long after the project ends and the team disbands. The social networks established and strengthened by the collaboration tend to outlive the project that facilitated their creation. Why should this dynamic be restricted to the ivory tower of academia? Companies make a lot of noise and spend a lot of effort trying to foster collaboration among their own teams and departments, but that is usually where it ends. We rarely look beyond our own staff, resources and business models to find non-obvious opportunity.
It shouldn’t be this way. The building blocks for expertise discovery and exchange already exist in most organizations. They just aren’t being leveraged. I discussed this in a previous post “Knowing What You Know: Expertise Discovery and Management” nearly a year ago. In the interim, the tools have improved, the opportunities have grown and the available relevant data has exploded. We should now take the next step. In addition to exchanging information, we should start exchanging bodies. We’ve embraced this approach for decades in the form of consultants and professional services. We get their expertise when we need it and they get our billable hours when they want it. The side effect of this arrangement is that we pay consultants to increase their own knowledge and competencies. We can get a bit of that to if we are willing to pay extra for “knowledge transfer.”
With a bit more openness and coordination, it is possible to move toward a less mercenary footing. Consultancies will always be useful, but loaning and receiving staff with partnering firms results in a much richer collaboration and deeper knowledge transfer. Billable hours can be replaced with simple reciprocity or even in some cases by jointly owned intellectual property. The terms of the exchange will of course be negotiation and tailored to circumstances, but the end result is that you may gain access to a person you could really use, but can’t hire. In return, that person gains new experience, new context and the all important social ties that form the bedrock of professional networks. The future of business is collaboration, not just between departments, but between companies. Documenting the expertise that exists in your organization and expertise that you need is a good first step. Publishing that information or a circumscribed portion of it, in the manner of VIVO and its compatriots, is a good next step. The smartest people may work for someone else, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help out once in a while.