Cooperation in Web 2.0 Companies

By Erhardt Graeff

Here at Berkman, Cooperation Research Group has developed a new project to look at how industries and corporate actors are changing their models and culture to incorporate commons-based models of cooperation and information sharing – the Institutional Cooperation Research Group (ICRG). At last Tuesday’s (13 January) Berkman Luncheon Series, Carolina Rossini, the fellow coordinating this research area, asked HBS’s Professor Andrew McAfee—who studies how Web 2.0 technologies are being embraced by individual corporations to promote productive and more open interaction between Granovetterian [pdf] strong, weak, potential, and serendipitous ties between colleagues—about how managers deal with the fear of competitors while trying to provoke a culture in their enterprises more akin to openness and collaboration.

McAfee’s response focused on the information security issues of expanded access to core business assets. He reflected on the case of the U.S. intelligence community’s internal wiki Intellipedia, where professionals have reconciled the fact that, previously, too little information sharing had resulted in many people’s deaths while realizing that too much information sharing may lead to future deaths. In this example, the intelligence gathering “industry” has a common goal where “profit” is maximized through cooperation—however, it is unclear whether such a paradigm is transferable to private industries like those the ICRG wants to study in the next term: Educational Materials, Alternative Energy, and Biotechnology.

The disconnect seems twofold: 1) the direction between a cultural shift leading to novel technology use versus novel technology use leading to a cultural shift, and 2) differentiating between internal (intra-)corporate ties and cooperation versus external (inter-)corporate or extra-corporate ties and cooperation. McAfee’s Enterprise 2.0 idea seems to start with technology as a exploitable tool, where external information sharing is still a concern in terms of security, despite an internal shift in information sharing mindset from “need to know” to a “responsibility to share”.

Concerns over individually held forms of intellectually property, present (confidential) and future (potential patents), are still prominent in this individual enterprise approach, evident in the example of crowdsourcing now used by some Biotech companies seeking solutions to their R&D problems via an intermediary online social network service. The corporations maintain a strict and confidential IP paradigm through paying contributing problem-solvers for their work and anonymizing the problem-posing pharmaceutical companies (Merck, Pfizer, etc.) and their specific end products. Thus we are left wondering: Can McAfee’s observed intra-business cultural shift via Web 2.0 potentially foment an industrial cultural shift searching for new and better ties? Can and how might a “responsibility to share” become a public commons? And how will corporations attracted to Benklerian “Wealth of Networks” ideas deal with the lingering issues of IP? …more to come, for sure, from the ICRG here at Berkman.

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