Book review: MacroWikinomics, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams

The YouGov chairman explains have now they've defined the art and science of collaboration in business, the authors now apply their theories to solve the world's biggest problems.

by Roger Parry
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

MacroWikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World
Don Tapscott and Anthony D Williams
Atlantic Books £19.99

This is a big book, in several senses of the word. At 400-plus pages, it's a heavyweight. Following its bestselling predecessor, Wikinomics, it carries big expectations for another publishing phenomenon. Its title is 'big' - adding the prefix Macro to Wikinomics - and the writers admit that their ambition is to address the world's biggest problems by applying their techniques to issues such as climate change, healthcare and education.

The original Wikinomics, a term first coined by the authors in 2006, explained how the technology of the internet offered a powerful way of managing and engaging customers. It was full of ground-breaking examples of how to take the principles of community participation from online encyclopaedia Wikipedia and software developer Linux into the commercial world. The book won a well-deserved, cult-like following. Now the same duo have upped a gear and are considering what they can do for society as a whole.

They explain the relationship of the two books as: 'Wikinomics, defined as the art and science of mass collaboration in business, becomes macrowikinomics: the application of wikinomics and its core principles to society and all of its institutions.' In support of this lofty aim, the authors take us to the likes of Davos and the Copenhagen summit - out of the boardroom and into the corridors of power. This book wants to do more than just help businesses: it wants to change the world. One sub-heading talks about 'A Killer Application for Mass Collaboration: Saving the Planet'. No lack of ambition here.

This new book is more theoretical than Wikinomics. There is more polemic and fewer examples of innovation. But it comes alive when you get to specifics. Tapscott and Williams' thesis is that embracing collaboration can transform an organisation. They showcase entertaining examples such as Local Motors, which gets 4,000-plus enthusiasts to work together to design cars, and Galaxy Zoo, which has recruited an army of more than 250,000 amateur astronomers to classify millions of images from the Hubble telescope - a task that would be impossible for a small team of professionals.

For me, by far the best section of the book was on the issues facing the media. It is the sector I work in and the collaboration tools do seem particularly relevant. The authors say: 'The digital revolution has affected no sector more than media and entertainment.' In assessing the challenge, they don't pull their punches. They tell us: 'It's pretty clear that newspapers, at least in their present form, will not survive.' And they are equally negative about broadcasting: 'Ten years from now ...

television will no longer exist. The internet will swallow television and today's programmes will become just another application on the web.'

They note that internet collaboration 'revolutionises more than just the creation, production and distribution of media entertainment. It is changing the nature of the media themselves, transforming the audience into producers, in turn challenging the economics and even existence of these industries.'

Their warnings of doom may be overdone, but if you want to confront conventional thinking and to learn about new approaches, this book is a stimulating must-read.

As with many management texts, the authors end it with a call to action - six snappy rules to put their ideas into effect. For example: 'Don't just create. Curate.' They explain the implications of this by saying: 'In order to succeed in a wiki world, you cannot just think of yourself as a content provider, or as someone creating an initiative, product or service. Instead, become the curator, someone who creates a context or a platform that allows other people to self-organise and create things that are valuable.'

Tapscott and Williams are evangelists who promote wikinomics as a solution to almost any problem. For managers looking to shape their own company with the tools of mass collaboration, this book has huge value. But for the policymakers seeking solutions to the major issues such as the flawed financial system, this feels like just the start of the debate.

So is this book important? Yes, without a doubt. It is it a good read, but does it succeed in being a 'big' book? Again, yes. I suspect they'll love it in Downing Street - as the ideas of engaging citizens and breaking down hierarchies will chime with the Coalition Government's 'Big Society'.

But the irony is that, when addressing the macro issues enshrined in its title, the book is less convincing then when it is on the safe home ground of taking the more bread-and-butter lessons of the original Wikinomics to the next level.

MacroWikinomics is an informed insight into the extraordinary challenges and opportunities of running successful organisations in an age of networked communities, but it does not wholly live up to its big promise about 'rebooting the world'. However, that is a pretty ambitious goal, and authors as energetic and resourceful as Tapscott and Williams will doubtless have another go.

- Roger Parry is chairman of online research company YouGov

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