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Wikinomics January 28, 2009

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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The only reason it took me as long as it did to get my hands on a copy of Wikinomics is that I waited for the paperback edition. Sure, I was curious, but I didn’t much relish the thought of having to transport a hardbound book between Manila and New York (and possibly back again). Now that I’ve gotten to read it, I’m afraid it wasn’t exactly worth the wait, but that might be more my fault than the book’s (or its authors’).

To quote the subtitle, Wikinomics is about “how mass collaboration changes everything”. No, it’s not about Wikipedia, though the online encyclopedia is discussed in the book. Rather, it’s about peer production and how technologies are making it possible for people to work together on projects and in ways as never before. The authors argue that in this day and age of collaborative technologies, individuals and institutions that embrace openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally will have an edge versus those who do not. Thus the book is devoted to elucidating upon these points by identifying successful examples of each of these principles put into practice.

Sounds interesting? I submit that it is, except… none of this is particularly new to me. I don’t mean that in a boastful sense (as if I know all there is to know about these things), but there are any number of books that have already dealt with these themes in much the same way, albeit in varying degrees. Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s Revolutionary Wealth (and to think that I didn’t particularly like this book, considering). More, I think it’s because of having grown up (personally and professionally) within the environment described throughout Wikinomics that the book elicited a somewhat confounded “Yeah, so?” reaction from me.

Overall, that is. Clearly, the value added that Tapscott and Williams offer in the book lies in the examples they use to illustrate their point, which on balance are interesting. Yet Wikinomics suffers like most business books in that its authors try too hard. In getting their point across they like to coin terms and phrases that, quite frankly, are pretentious: “ideagoras” (marketplaces for ideas), the “New Alexandrians” (shared databases that likened to modern day libraries of Alexandria), “Enterprise 2.0” (the collaborative business model that thrives in the new environment described throughout the book), heck the notion of “wikinomics” itself comes across as overkill. Why? Again, because I feel that the authors tend to overstate their case.

I think this is problem is endemic to books that touch upon subjects such as these. For those familiar with such trends — whether it’s second nature to them or they’ve read extensively about it, or because that’s really the environment within which they work — books like Wikinomics tend to generate a ho-hum sort of response. So it was with me. But for those who need a reader on these trends — because they belong to the “old guard” that does things traditionally or because they are keenly interested in documenting how much things are different now — then books like this are a valuable resource. Indeed, looking through the positive reviews collected in the book’s opening pages and back cover, it’s rather obvious that those enamored of Wikinomics charms are mostly already established professionals that have experienced the things detailed in the book late in their careers. For them, such things are or have been challenges. But it will not be so for an entire generation to whom such changes in technology or the workplace are less challenges than facts of life. I find it difficult to see how such people can find a book like Wikinomics the least bit riveting (though I grant that one of the more interesting chapters in the book is specifically about the Net Generation).

Ultimately, a book is no more or less than what we hope to get out of it. I suspect so it is with Wikinomics.

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