What Is the Future for Collaboration in the Knowledge Economy?

A Report from the NSF/OECD Cosponsored Conference, “Advancing Knowledge and the Knowledge Economy”

February 11, 2005

“Advancing Knowledge and the Knowledge Economy,” a conference held in Washington, DC, in early January 2005, highlighted three interrelated issues that illustrate how public and private organizations should exploit the forthcoming advances in information and communications technologies derived from the Internet and the Web. First, organizations need to learn from their customers and stakeholders. Second, organizations need to be able to build and sustain communities of interest and communities of practice. Third, organizations need to explicitly communicate the rules of engagement for collaboratively-developed intellectual property. When customers and stakeholders help to design products by contributing their great ideas, there need to be sets of incentives and rewards for them for the end results.

An Adaptive Backpack for the Senior Set

Let’s look into a hypothetical future for a moment. It is 2008, and Bernard Brown is directing product development for a recreational equipment company, Ever Higher Sporting Gear. Brown is beginning to develop a lightweight backpack for avid, albeit mature, hikers—enthusiasts now in their sixties (and above) who have spent much of their spare time over the years tromping through forests and climbing mountains, and who have no intention of putting away their hiking sticks.

Brown is planning to design the backpack around the things that mature hikers need—a comfortable pack for people with arthritis and muscle problems that they can easily strap on and adjust. At the same time, he wants to make use of the latest composite materials and manufacturing techniques to develop an affordable product that Ever Higher Sporting Gear can profitably produce. Brown also wants to take advantage of the most up-to-date research in adult physiology by developing a flexible frame, complete with weight-distributing gels, that naturally molds to each hiker’s physical size, strength, and stature.

Plugging into an Advanced Collaborative Workspace

Brown can easily do background research on the kinds of advanced composite materials designers might consider. He has been able to search for rele-vant information on the Web for many years, and, most recently, he has been impressed with how carefully categorized many online information services have become. He is willing to pay a modest (and affordable) fee to access copyrighted resources about market characteristics and technical trends.

And Brown expects to assemble a design team that will be able to work together over the Internet and the Web. He also expects to manage the busi-ness relationships that occur when people share their knowledge and expertise at a distance. Additionally, he would like to try something he has never done before: he wants to incorporate customers—enthusiasts who are willing to share their practical experience—into the design process on an ongoing basis by fostering communities of practice.

Brown is already in touch with many customers. He receives a steady stream of comments, both from hikers and retailers. A few of his customers, the more sincere among them, often send him their ideas for new straps and pockets. Brown knows that he can generate interest in the design concepts—finding enthusiasts willing to try new gear is not a problem. But he is concerned that competitors might learn about his product before the backpack comes to market.

Creating Competitive Advantage

Beyond the market research and Ever Higher Sporting Gear’s internal research and development activities, Brown knows that he needs to work with third-party experts. For instance, he plans to collaborate with a team of biomedical researchers, world renowned physiologists at a leading medical school, who have patented a new technique for measuring how hikers carry weight when climbing a mountain. Brown expects that the insights from this team will provide Ever Higher Sporting Gear with a competitive advantage in the market. If the design activities proceed as planned, he knows that Ever Higher Sporting Gear will need to license the researchers’ technologies from the university before the company can commercialize the backpack.

Brown is looking for a collaborative workspace that will make implementing and protecting these commercial rights as seamless as possible, while also ensuring that the product development efforts can continue if the company is unable to license the third-party technology. His challenge is to figure out how to organize and manage his new product development activities to leverage his access to information, knowledge, insights, and expertise...


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