Sunday, October 08, 2006

Openness and efficiency

What is the point in keeping new innovative ways of working secret?

Some state that it is not any single idea, or any kind of secret you hold that is the key to success, but hard work. People would very much like the opposite to be true, since that would mean that they don't need to work their butts off, but can sit back and relax while somebody buys their idea. That is however seldom the case. You realy need to work hard in order to do a better job than your competition. Most of them do a really lousy job anyway so it should not be all that hard, and the rest never understood what it the idea was all about anyway...

However, secrecy, internal competition and the "secrecy cult loving"” corporate climate seems to have got the better of efficiency in today's world. Patents, non disclosure agreements, licenses, information on need to know basis and lawyers all help holding this cult of secrecy in power. Does it really make sense?

Nature teach us that individuals die and the knowledge they have acquired with them, but species survive. Other individuals in the species pick up some of the ideas and transmit them further. Holding secrets is not very smart in the long run with the knowledge that the individual will go under in a short while. Ideas can only be saved by copying them. The more copies the better. If there is a short term benefit to be gained from keeping secrets it used to be profitable only for a short time. In the long run somebody always came up with a better idea. With the prolongation of the patents life and copyright this is perhaps not the case any more.

Organizations and individuals should in my opinion at least be open to new ideas. There is a saying that innovation happens elsewhere. I tend to think that this is very true for major new ideas, since organizations and individuals inside the organizations get used to defend their own position and focus on minor improvements that can be done without disrupting the stagnant state the organization live in. If organizations are closed to new ideas then they will in the long run be doomed, which should however perhaps not be seen as a bad thing. Something else will follow after a major failure.

Openness also implies sharing. You have to give something in order to get something. I think this is also true when sharing ideas. If you only listen you will be able to understand something, but the comments you get from sharing what you do can be very much more valuable.

Some laws however set limits on the openness an organization can display and what can be shared. Health records or other personal information can not be shared without serious risk of violating the law. Openness can generally not be targeted at only one subset of the organizations peers, but must be equal to all. The law however still leaves plenty of room for sharing, openness and learning from others for any organisation to become more efficient.