Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Innovation Stagnation - Set Knowledge Free

Trade secrets. Proprietary knowledge. Insider information.

Corporate America is notoriously tight fisted with their secret sauces. A company figures out some competitive advantage within the production of their widgets, then they horde that knowledge, unwilling to let anyone outside their W2's know about that bit of knowledge that sets them apart.

It makes sense, right? Protect what makes you money. Hire the top talent, who will hopefully keep your company on top, attempting to keep things fresh with the same intellectual ingredients.

This mentality, while safe, is an insecure, short-sighted approach to progress and innovation. One person can produce great ideas, a group of employees can collaborate to create amazing ideas, but knowledge is cumulative at a universal level, so meaningful evolution of ideas requires greater commingling of knowledge. Isaac Newton is attributed with the now-cliche addage,

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

The phrase succinctly encapsulates the concept of cumulative, aggregated knowledge. Without the work of  thinkers long-dead, the innovations of the last few decades would be impossible. Furthermore, an individual cannot view a project or challenge from every angle. Preconceived notions, tunnel vision, and pride in ones own ideas hinder true objectivity when seeking a solution. The result may be adequate, but it will not be as innovative as if the problem were attacked from all angles, with multiple minds approaching from individual perspectives.

The concept of open source collaboration has been creating innovative applications to real world challenges for at least the last decade. A challenge is made, and the public is invited to collaborate with the intention of expanding the greater well-being of all. This creative and open medium can be seen in sites like Wikipedia, and in downloadable clients such as Audacity Music editor. By using the consumers as content providers, these models of business are ensuring customer satisfaction.

The selective manipulation and control of knowledge that we see today in business is reminiscent of the dark ages of European history. Discernment was reserved for the religious and the political elite, and the masses were left in the dark. For much of the western world, innovation stagnated and parts of our understanding of the world regressed, losing enlightenment no longer practiced. I am not implying that our current industrial proprietarism complex will plunge our civilization into another dark age, but I would argue that our system of patent, trademark, and copywrite instills a sense of complacency, rewarding great minds with long lasting benefits and removing the need to challenge their own existing discoveries and inventions with greater acheivements.

Truly great thinkers will continue to strive forward, building on the innovation around them. This drive is not economical in nature, but rather philosophical and existential. Unfortunately it is rare to find a corporation that embodies that sense of wonder and drive for the expansion of knowledge. Instead, the bottom line and the accounting department steer the decisions of most companies, migrating toward security and sure-footed business choices. While this may be good for business in the short-term, it inevitably creates a stagnate environment for discovery.


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