The masses are smarter than "Top Secret"

Fantastic article in yesterday's (December 3, 2006) New York Times Magazine entitled "Open-Source Spying". Central premise is that, surprise surprise, the intentional "air gaps" - or connectivity holes - between the various intelligence agencies databases and information management systems have proven to have a larger negative effect (inability to efficiently connect, corral, and rank importance of particular types of information that live on multiple platforms) than the original intended positive effect of that architecture (keep stuff secret -- from the public and maybe from other, no-good, not-to-be-trusted competing government intelligence agencies). One of the other slightly more surprising takeaways, at least from my standpoint, was that good intelligence analysts are largely giving up on "internal" information sources/flows to stay on top of their subject matter, and are instead spending more and more time on Technorati, Google, and any number of other public information exchanges because the info is better and the tools they provide to find, organize, and manage information are so much more efficient. And as one guy pointed out, hardly anything that the bad guys are doing these days is really 'secret' anymore anyway... it's all out there in the open, it's just sufficiently fragmented to make it hard (but not impossible) to piece together into a cogent whole. Related tangent: the illustrations that graphically depict the relationships between terror information nodes by Lisa Strausfeld and James Nick Sears/Pentagram that accompany the article are strangely beautiful. They look like airplane contrails in the night, but depict relationships between the people and events that led to September 11th, 2001, and earlier terror attacks. And they reminded me instantly of the artwork of Mark Lombardi, who was doing his own hand-drawn charts of information and financial flows related to the U.S. government based on his own research back in the 1990's. When you see how right he got it in his 1999 drawing depicting the connections between George W. Bush, Harken Energy, Jackson Stephens, and numerous Saudi royal family members including Osama Bin Laden between 1979 and 1990, it's obvious how just ONE smart guy doing deep research and linking it all together out there among the great unwashed, no-classified-access masses is worth a thousand gumshoe bureaucrats toiling away. (Note to Sergei and Larry: If you're not too busy counting your billions these days, how about you send some of your legion over to DC to wire up "Google Government" to crawl and index all that latent, aging super-secret data sitting "too classified to share" on hundreds of dusty gubmint servers? Much like the Internet, probably 90% if useless or redundant to what's already available elsewhere... but maybe there are a few gems in the 10%? It's worth a shot putting more than a few thousand pairs of Virginia eyeballs on it.) If the government is going hive-mind on its intelligence services, maybe all those "corporate secrets" could use a little wiki treatment too? In the age of being able to reverse-engineer everything, from iPods to Coke's recipe to the human genome, is there really much point anymore in being so worked up about secrecy? In a world where increasingly the success of a company comes down to 2 Things, and neither of them is easy to replicate when someone gets it right, why not throw open the doors on all those "secret recipes" and "special sauces" and see if the wisdom of the many and the passion of a few outside the hallowed halls of [Fill in your company name here] can improve your product or service. [Thing #1: Operational Excellence, defined as continuously falling per-unit cost of production with continuously rising per-unit quality... with no negative social or environmental impacts. Thing #2: Customer Engagement, defined as proactive inclusion and reactive responsiveness to your past, present, and future customers] What have you got to lose, really? Your competitors already know WHAT you make or do in detail --- they did their research, took apart your widget, tried out your service, tasted your entree, or whatever, long ago. It's HOW you do what you do that is very very very hard to replicate ---- so keep the operations and the customer engagement methods under wraps, and throw open the product or service editing process to the world. It'll probably get better faster than if you hired another "distinguished engineer" or MBA for your product development team. I remember an excellent example of this concept applied to one of my favorite products: "Open Source Beer". They let the masses determine the recipe, and refine it incrementally over time. (Thing #2). Then they brew it and distribute it at lowest cost. And to lower production costs even more, they let anyone brew it and sell it as long as they get a cut of the proceeds back. (Thing #1). Awesome. Lawrence Lessig wrote about it in Wired. Makes me want to go to Denmark to have one. And it probably tastes a grillion times better than any American macro-brew. And I love the mantra, repeated ad nauseum by lifers from certain large software companies, that "The customer doesn't know what they want until you give it to them." That's a nice way of saying "We're smarter than they are, so we don't need to ask them because we're going to get it MORE right by thinking it up ourselves than they will by thinking it up themselves." As opposed to the corporate secrets approach ("We can't involve our customers because this information is too sensitive or special for them to handle and for us to let go."), this philosophy takes it one step further ("We can't involve our customers because this information is too hard for them to understand in its raw form.") Hmmm. Really? I defy anyone reading this to think of a product from the last 20 years that isn't simply a better version of something - or several somethings - that existed before. And I guarantee you that somewhere on the Internet there is a person who wants to contribute to your product development process who is smarter than anyone else in your company. Let the masses step into your design studio -- and maybe show them a few blueprints (literally or figuratively, you get my drift). Give them a forum or a wiki and let them have at it. Pretty soon, you'll be getting so much value from the "massive anonymous genius" and the tools they use that you'll want to have them hanging out in your factory too. And since you'll be getting all that free input into your product design and improvement cycle, you will be able to get down to doing Thing #1 and Thing #2, instead of Things #3 - 1,000,000 (which is what most companies do). It might even be kind of fun to see where it goes. We've got our company's marketing messaging for Spring Creek Group up on a wiki for anyone to read, edit, improve, alter as they see fit -- we figured, "What the heck - why not? If anyone has a better suggestion for how to communicate what we do and gets the language better than us, then great!" We asked a bunch of our friends about our corporate logo and fonts through the review cycles while they were being designed, rather than paying thousands to a "brand design" firm.... and while it's not the flashiest logo in the world, it came out attractive and better than the two of us could have come up with on our very own. We're just starting to harness the power of more grey matter in our business. Sounds like our government is just starting, too. Here's hoping that they start to trust their customers a little more, namely us, and let more of their own information "be free".

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