As the old saying goes, ‘Knowledge is Power.’ Remember, though, that knowledge is the aggregation of the experiences and mistakes of huge numbers of people. At the fundamental level, this is the basis of the whole ‘Wisdom of Crowds‘ concept. However, it is true that it often takes individuals, or groups of individuals, to refine the large cauldron of ideas that come into the crowdsourcing exercise.
Interestingly, though academia has a ‘publish or perish’ mentality in a lot of cases, there are those in that camp who understand that sometimes you have to spread the power of knowledge to the masses without attempting to charge a premium for that information. As an example, a recent LA Times article showcases the growing trend in some academic circles of ‘open source’ textbooks. As the father of a college freshman, I know I can get behind low-cost (or free) textbooks, but I’m also interested in how this practice lets students get a variety of perspectives that they can use to spur critical thinking, and make up their own minds. Several of the texts also utilize a limited Wikipedia-style mechanism which allows for additions/corrections and discussions to occur. This idea of a two-way interaction of learning and disseminating information is not only better for the students, but I think it helps build a positive feedback loop into the system, causing teachers who embrace this methodology to constantly re-evaluate their methods.
To put this in terms of Corporate America, I think it behooves companies to determine what part of their knowledge (product knowledge, support information, future ideas) should be made ‘open source’ (and I use that term in a very broad sense). If your company spends all of its time trying to protect every scrap of knowledge that it has, it is probably wasting cycles it could be using to better serve customers – those very same customers that are more than likely a good source of information on what you should be doing. Openness forms a large part of the mentality that I believe should inform good community management practices. It is sometimes difficult to get large corporations to understand this, but those that do ultimately reap the benefits.
Even though the CollabNet Community site is still relatively young, I see it as a place where we try to spread the power of our knowledge, plus that of the community at large. Yes, before anyone calls me on this, it isn’t purely for altruistic reasons – a vibrant community around our products does benefit us, but I hope that the two-way flow of information brings benefits to both sides in the long run.