More and more large organisations will feel the gravitational pull of these open and participative ways of working. Many will cherry pick elements of the recipe: self-organisation, self-scheduling, peer review of performance, open plan, café style places of work. Some large organisations, as a result, will be more humane, productive and profitable. But it will prove difficult to take the cherry picking too far: open source styles of work depend on similarly open approaches to leadership and ownership. Open source communities encourage freedom of speech and association; decision making is transparent; ideas are held in shared ownership. Not many large companies are prepared for all that this entails.
This call for more open and participative forms of work may all sound utopian and I might have been inclined to agree until I met Chris Sacca over dinner in late 2005. Sacca is a principal at Google, the information search company and one of the first handful of employees. I asked him how Google managed to come up with its flow of ideas. His reply went something like this. Every Friday everyone in Google gathers for an all company meeting, 7,000 people, face-to-face or connected by video. Anyone can ask the senior management any question about the company’s policy, strategy or performance. People who ask more direct and difficult questions tend to get a round of applause. Every Friday, every person working in one of Sacca’s teams files him five bullets explaining what he or she has achieved that week and five more on what they plan to achieve in the week to come. That is the only reporting system. He does some work making sure everyone is on track but most of the time it is up to people to sort out what they are doing, adjust to one another without calling in a manager: the beach ethic at work. Anyone in the company can search through the bullets submitted by anyone else, including those from the chief executive. Anyone in Google can launch a development project to create a new service, so long as they post the details on a central site, so everyone else can see what is going on. They can continue with their project until they want to recruit more than two people or start to use some significant server capacity. Once they have reached that stage they have to take the idea to a company council – a bit like a committee in an open source community – which will make a decision about whether it should go ahead. If it does get the go ahead then the project gets given very few resources to begin with. Sacca explained : “You have to keep resources tight. If they can only recruit one extra person to the project, you know they are going to go out and get the best person they can find.”
All of this has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Work cultures are rarely as open and democratic as people at the top of an organisation claim, even at a company as funky as Google. Yet if only half of what Sacca describes is true then it poses a huge challenge for traditional, top down, slow moving organisations, both public and private. If an organisation wants to match Google’s rate of innovation, then technology is only a small part of the story. Google’s most valuable asset is this self-organising work culture which motivates, coordinates and innovates all at the same time and at very low cost. Google is perhaps the most striking example of how a company has taken elements of open source work into the corporate world and in the process created an extremely potent mutant.
Work and consumption are being changed by the emergence of more open ways to organising ourselves at scale. Consumers, especially the Pro-Ams, increasingly want to be participants and contributors not just recipients of services and solutions. Workers aspire to the democratic and participative values that run through open source collaboratives and much of the rest of life. They want to be able to self-organise more. The interaction of new self organising forms of work and new m ore participative forms of consumption will generate new approaches to innovation. New ideas increasingly will emerge from the interaction between users and producers, amateurs and professionals, rather than coming down a pipeline from the boffins and professionals, to the waiting, open mouthed consumers. This more interactive and participative approach to innovation will challenge many deeply held assumptions about what creativity is, where is comes from, how it should be rewarded and organised.