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Commercial Approaches to User Collaboration

The next speaker at Challenge Social Innovation is Heidemarie Hanekop, whose focus is on user collaboration with companies. First, of course, such collaborations are importantly enabled by the Web, which makes a broad base of new knowledge publicly available and thereby enables new forms of information sharing and collaboration. This can happen with and without the help of commercial interests – from Wikipedia and open source to Facebook and YouTube.

Such new collaborative spaces are clearly attractive to users, which has also led to the involvement of companies in this space. But user collaboration stands in sharp contrast to the hierarchical organisation of companies and markets, so how can this work? What are the mechanisms that enable user collaboration on a large scale? How do companies adapt these mechanisms for their own purposes?

A first key characteristic of user collaboration is the relative autonomy of users or contributors (users are voluntary, free to decide on their contributions, and realise their own interests in the process); this may be addressed by companies by providing users with sufficient leeway in their contributions, by providing tasks that are appropriate to user motives, and by abstaining from selecting and controlling user contributions.

A second characteristic are the collective actions of users to produce services in a joint effort (users make contributions for other users, those contributions are freely accessible online, and a large number of contributors participate in these processes); this solves specific collective action problems by providing for reciprocity without obligations, by attracting a critical mass of participants, and by drawing on a large number of users and potential contributors. Firms can enable such collective action by making user contributions freely available online, making contributions fun and easy, and addressing shared goals and subjects, for example.

A third characteristic is the collective self-organisation of user collaboration on a large scale (building on principles of openness and transparency, following institutionalised rules for contributions, and implementing them through ICT-based collaboration tools); here, companies are able to provide tools that make activities transparent (for both users and staff), and to implement community-accepted rules in the tools they provide (and those rules must be accepted and followed by both users and staff).

Such characteristics of user collaboration are applied by many firms, but only to a degree: to the areas of the company’s operations which engage directly with its collaborating users. This means that there are two competing realms here: a realm for the company’s conventional operations, governed by internal rules, and another realm in which users collaborate with the company, governed by the rules of user collaboration – and those two realms may well clash with one another.