“It works both ways — you’ve told me that yourself. Our free exchange of information means swifter progress, even if we do give away a few secrets… We’ll show them that Democracy can get to the moon first.”
Arthur C. Clarke — Childhood’s End — 1953
I had an incredible heart-to-heart with a colleague last week. We were talking about openness vs. closedness, specifically in the world of large enterprises.
This colleague has learned some tricky lessons recently, when work that was achieved was not acknowledged where he thought it counted most. Worse, he witnessed what seemed like more powerful factions taking credit for things that other people had directly initiated or even achieved — unacknowledged. He’s now working within an effort to determine how people can get their due credit for their work. Nearly painfully, he recounted how it’s now his impression that when you work in an open atmosphere, you wind up being punished and even exploited. In the future, his colleagues should learn to contemplate hiding their work until the work is quite ready. This was not his initial attitude.
Herein lies the struggle between openness and closedness — the struggle, some would say, between “Web 2.0” and the enterprise itself. Learning to hide, to me, is risky and counter to productivity and collaboration. The risk is that you focus so much more on hiding your work than actually working that innovation is stifled. And by the way — you’re also not very nice sometimes. If colleagues need help and you don’t stand to gain anything from it, you don’t help, which I find risky to the soul. (Maybe what matters is only whether you can live with yourself either way.)
No, I don’t think that organizations, or people, need to be either all open or all closed, nor do I behave exclusively openly – far from it. But I do know that personally, for me, my life has been a heck of a lot more fulfilling when I approach it openly and I don’t have to hide. I’m more productive within an open, cooperative environment in which information flows freely and people (gasp) help each other. This is “the generosity of the Internet” (as I heard Caterina Fake once describe it) and it resonates with me.
And yes, my colleague is right. I understand that within a system of imbalance of power, openness is perceived to lead to exploitation. True, start-ups also have “stealth modes” for a reason, and if you share your work early on, you are at risk for someone else more powerful taking credit for it or even taking it all together. And I’m sure this doesn’t even begin to compare to the world of academia, where credit for ideas is *everything.* So am I naive? Surely. I keep sharing, helping my colleagues and my neighbors and virtual strangers and friends online whenever I can. At least, it’s the world that I need to live in.
Ultimately I have learned I have all the power I need: I have the power to tell my own story, to speak out where and when I see fit, to speak against injustice and praise generosity, to value collaboration and participation, and, if the system no longer supports it, to no longer participate. And I do thank “the generosity of the Internet” for that.