Collaboration Ninja 忍者

Work-in-progress: please join in and share your insights

Send a Golden Invitation

There’s no collaboration without people. Just like hiring a workforce, or launching a nation-wide X-factor talent search – how do you attract the right participants? What’s the mix of compelling vision, potential for social change, competitive fun, sense of belonging, gaining new knowledge, recognition, and monetary rewards?

Keep the vision simple, compelling, & focused

Getting the right people from the beginning

Make it like a game!

How to consider business models

Much of what we know about web-enabled collaborative projects stems from the open-source software movement. In recent years there have been various collaborative media platforms experimenting with business models to sustain collaborative, participatory, peer 2 peer ventures (flickr, megavideo & of course Wikipedia). However there’s still a tremendous amount of uncertainty as to how these models port over to the mainstream; if and how they become a primary means of innovating and providing services in our economy. Here’s a few thoughts on lessons learned so far and some questions you can ask when designing a business model for your collaborative project.

First, is this an ‘open’ project or a ‘free’ project?

Its important early-on the make the distinction between open and free collaboration. “On open platforms the point is to have access, but in a free world, or in the commons, the important thing is to have control over that content. In economic terms: a ‘club’ good vs. a public good…It’s a subtle distinction because there’s a lot of overlap between a free and an open environment. Ultimately the free environment or the commons will own the content they create and the open is simply an open accessible platform with an implied social contract.”David Bollier

e.g. Facebook as a platform is ‘open’ – contributors do the ‘work’ but a company owns the content. Facebook are attempting to monetize, so will benefit financially from the community which has a social interest (i.e. their reward is having free access to the social networking service provided), but not a market interest, so do not gain financially from their efforts. Linux, on the other hand is an example of a commons-based resource focused on providing ‘public goods’ with community control of a resource. The value for the participants of that collaboration is very different, so the terms of collaboration are different in those cases.
Neither case excludes monetization, they will just take a different form. David Bollier has an important rule of thumb:

“That which is created in the commons much stay in the commons, unless the commons decides that certain things are acceptable for being privately appropriated. Even free software communities allow code to be commercialized… they just don’t allow the code to be privatized. It seems a subtle distinction but its a very important one in terms of retaining control over the code.”- David Bollier

Ways to consider rewards and motivations

Whether it’s an open or free project it’s important to consider what’s motivating people to be involved, and keep your eye on rewarding that motivation. Entering into a collaboration with a ‘shared risk, shared reward’ mentality can go a long way and be a good tenant for designing any business model. Of course some people will get more involved, and involvement may take a variety of forms. Rewarding different forms and levels of contribution is complicated “Some people might be driven by different things so that reward might manifest itself in a number of different ways” (Roland Harwood).
Clearly there are no hard and fast rules as to the best way to reward the crowd but it’s critical to not lose site of their motivations and how those will be rewarded. Particularly for efforts that are fueled by more of a ‘hero’ sentiment: of wanting to create a public good. If someone else eventually makes money, how will that monetization effect their motivation? David Bollier has noticed the demotivating impact this can have, when money is introduced to previously voluntary projects, so be careful. But if people are contributing to create something, it’s probably good practice to reward that sharing, otherwise the virtuous circle that drives the spirit of collaboration will be lost.
“If you find something that saves the world, it would be nice if people who contribute get to share in any money that comes out of it. Normally with gifts you get some sort of thank you if you give them. For collaboration networks it would be nice if there’s some recognition that somebody’s contributed something at the least. That forms a virtuous circle with regards to social proof. Both thanking me for my idea and also promoting me to my peers. You can very simply give people a reason to share again effectively by attributing ideas to them”. – Chris Thorpe

Factors effecting business models

Beyond considering the logistics of rewarding all involved in a crowd-sourced or collaborative project, it can also be difficult to calculate the benefits of a collaborative endeavor up front thus complicating the process of deigning a business model.
“Return on Investment is often more organizational understanding of what your mission is. Or more quick access to more data than you normally would have. It’s important to think innovatively about how you characterize the return on investment in your business case but it doesn’t mean you can leave that field blank. Just like anything else you’ve got to make the case to your allies.”Dan Munz
It’s important not to forget the cost of these endeavors. While it may seem ‘cheap’ to add a web-based collaborative platform to your current non-profit or business structure, it will cost you in time, and thus money. You need to consider how you will populate new resources, how they will be managed and who will staff them. You need to consider how you will link older aspects of your business with these structures, and how to maintain them in the longer term. “The worst thing is when you have a Blog on a website with no new postings in 8 months. That means the tool isn’t working and it wasn’t set up properly” -Dan Munz

New Economy

It seems with the potential of the collaborative web at our fingertips, we’ve entered into a new economic reality. We now have success stories from open business models where you make money in the market world by giving things away, trusting that by sharing with the chaos of the network you will receive something in return. A new reality of the networked economy is the long tail theory popularized by Chris Anderson where you make money by selling more of less. This Long Tail distribution whereby it’s possible to access teeny tiny niches and have people contributing small amounts is apparent all over the web, but what that means for business models outside the media industry is still unclear.
“No one knows the rules for the new economy business modes. But as a basic principle it’s about adding value to things that people do and need to do.”Jon Husband
A few have taken stabs at laying out new rules for this new economy, including Kevin Kelly’s 10 rules for the new economy which include embracing the swarm and sharing with the web. David Bollier has laid the foundations for understanding how open business models fit within our market economy in Chapter 10 of Viral Spiral. His findings also emphasize the importance of sharing knowledge and he’s pulled out important lessons of succesful monetizations from the free software movement. However Bollier himself admits it’s just too soon to say what the new economic reality of this collaborative economic web will be and it’s probably dangerous to try and predict.

Thought on current business models for monetizing the process and products of collaborations

‘Get discovered’ model:

Where people use open platforms to get discovered and then monetize (David Bollier).

Subscription Model:

People pay to participate in the collaboration. This only really works for a very targeted audience with specialist content: filling a gap in the market, that the audience is willing to pay to participate in (Chris Applegate ). For example, there is a medical social computing site where doctors can describe diagnostics problems they have dealt with. Other doctors come along and pay a subscription to explore the content and inform their practice (Mark Klein).

Scalar Subscription Model:

Allow people to utilize your on-line service for free, at first. Users can access certain services for free, but have to pay to use more pro tools, which they come to value by using the free version: e.g. Flickr’s pro account (Dominic Campbell).

Lottery Model:

Utilize a lottery type incentive to motivate participation in the collaboration. More of a game, whereby only one person will get ‘lucky’ and reap rewards but many are encouraged by the thought of a big ‘win’ into participating (Chris Applegate).


Micro-payments involve paying micro-amounts for things you look at on the web, thus monetizing and rewarding sharing on the web. This is supposed to capitalize on the ‘long-tail’ opportunities of the networked environment, but Chris Applegate is suspicious: the “fundamental problem is you don’t know how much it’s worth until you’ve actually experienced it, and the amount of time you spend worrying about whether its worth (comparing the good to other things on the market) your time, is worth more than the cost of the good you’re comparison shopping for. So that cost of trying to ‘guess’ what something is worth before hand (2 cents, 4 cents) is a massive barrier. Also if you have to pay for every last thing you look at, there’s no surprises, you won’t experiment, won’t find new things.”

Advertisement and Merchandise Model:

Several cases exist whereby content is made freely available, and return is gained via advertising to the community and selling merchandise e.g. google’s advertising model. (Chris Applegate)

User-designed Prosumerism & Innovation communities:

Whereby the customer partakes in the design process, thus acquiring the product they want/need and the organization delivering a better product. It’s a highly symbiotic relationship between the community and market that drives innovation (innovation of the mountain bike is a classic example). These communities are highly innovative so this model holds a tremendous amount of potential (David Bollier).
Once again it comes back to TRUST. If you want to maximize success, you need to set up a business model that allows people to trust they won’t be taken advantage of. If it feels like they’re being exploited for ideas without any reward, participants will quickly lose motivation and your collaboration will not be sustainable.

Future Trends

While the future is incredibly uncertain, Chris Applegate thinks we’ve got some potential to make some radical leaps very shortly.

“As the changing face of business, combined with recession has many industries going into steep decline; music, newspapers, film, sports, you’ve got a lot of venture capitalists and bright young people, the first Facebook generation coming of age and starting to look at these issues. There’s an awful lot of talent there.”Chris Applegate

It seems likely that at the least, more traditional business models are going to have to be more open to knowledge sharing if they want to keep up with user defined, openly innovated products and services as competition. With regards to the commons and ‘free-culture’ there is so much yet to be seen, and so much rides on the future of intellectual property law, a concept we explore briefly here.


One Response

  1. […] lead online collaborations. So read on to find out more about the web tools to use, but also the invitation, experience design,  and human elements that enables everyone to contribute their […]

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