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We live in a time of great change. And technology is a big driver of that change. In fact, thanks to technology, the rate of change around us continues to accelerate – which creates significant challenges across the spectrum of IT, business, and society in general.
Keeping pace with change and overcoming those challenges will require fresh thinking and creative new solutions. But many of the hurdles we face, from slowing productivity and stagnant economic growth to underfunded schools and climate change, are simply too big for any one person or individual organization to address alone. We must find new ways to work together. And to do that, we need to be willing to toss out our conventional thinking about how work gets done. We need to embrace the notion that participation is the new innovation.
Let me explain.
We are now entering what attendees at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While it was large industrial mills that kicked off the first Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, and smaller electrically powered machines that drove the second iteration, it was computers that brought us into the third industrial era with the introduction of the microchip in the 1970s. Today’s organizational structures grew out of the advances wrought from these different eras. Most organizations typically excel at driving efficiency in static environments, such as the workplace, a classroom, or even a hospital ward.
But it is the continued evolution of computers and information technology that has pushed us into an altogether new era, one that promises to change everything we thought we knew about how to get things done.
As Steve Jobs once said, the computer is like a bicycle for the mind because it enables you to multiply your capabilities and the speed at which you do them. We now have emerging computer technology we call artificial intelligence that promises to break even the bonds of the physical world – which can allow us to pedal even faster. Which begs a question - how can anyone keep up with that pace, let alone get ahead of it? How do you inspire people to innovate and dream up game-changing new ideas on par with creating the steam engine or the CPU?
The answer is by embracing the power of participation and open innovation. When you can bring groups of people together from across multiple organizations and disciplines, and allow them the freedom to work together, your ability to innovate becomes far greater. When I think about open source, it’s not about getting the best individual solution from thousands of people, it’s about getting a better solution from thousands of people working together. It’s about how we find synergy in innovation when we participate together.
Consider the analogy of an orchestra, which is made up of many individual musicians each of whom has their own unique skills and talents. The role of the conductor is to bring those individuals together in a way where the music they produce is something greater than any one of those musicians could produce on their own. But to create beautiful music, the greatest conductors recognize that getting the best creative output from their team is about giving up control. Rather than work top-down using a command-and-control model, the best conductors simply create the conditions where the musicians have the freedom to feed off each other. As the famed Israeli conductor Itay Talgam has said: "The worst damage I can do to my orchestra is to give them a clear instruction. That would prevent the ensemble, the listening to each other, that’s needed for the orchestra."
That same lesson applies to how we work. You can’t just issue an order telling someone to "innovate." Rather, as leaders, we need to create and catalyze the conditions where the seeds of innovation can germinate through participation.
And just like in an orchestra, you need a diversity of talent to excel. No matter how big your organization is, there will always be more smart people with different perspectives and experience outside its walls than within. And if you want to ensure that you maximize your potential to innovate, you will need to tap those resources even when they span different organizations or even geographies. By thinking beyond these borders, you can accomplish so much more together.
At Red Hat, we see this power of participation every day in the world of open source, where user-driven innovation underlies the advances we are seeing in cloud computing, Linux containers, mobile, and big data. It is because of this participative movement, which sets the pace of innovation, that open source has become a default choice in IT.
But it’s not just technology firms that can reap the benefits of participation and open source. One of the reasons I wrote my book, The Open Organization, was to inspire others to think about embracing openness and participation in their organizations or communities. Participation and open source is helping to change the world by changing what’s possible. In government, open data and citizen participation are helping to increase transparency and introduce new services for available citizens. In healthcare, open access can help save lives or foster incredible advancements. In schools, open source is transforming education and how our students learn, and enabling greater access that will help shape the next-generation of innovators, leaders, and global citizens. Open source - in technology and beyond - is making the impossible possible.
Imagine if the major sectors of our society began to function in interoperable ecosystems built on open source principles like transparency, sharing, and mass participation. What would our world look like in ten or twenty years if we unlocked that kind of potential for innovation?
I believe it will be our ability to harness and stoke the creative capacity of the billions of people around the world that will determine the pace of human progress for the next century. That’s the real payoff from participation.