Community & Connected Value

A sales person who came from the telecom industry once said that to me that “higher education is strange — you share everything.” Yes, this community generates and benefits greatly from connected value.

Having been on the corporate side for a while, I lost sight as to how much value can be derived from collaboration across what seems like competitive boundaries. Colleges and universities seem to be constantly at odds with one another whether fighting on the gridiron, on the basketball court or in bringing new ideas to market. Although this appears to be its public persona, much of what happens behind the scenes involves varying degrees of collaboration — from big science to student applications to technology that enables learning — where sharing across boundaries creates more value than becoming castles that guard against all who come near.

This week I had the unique pleasure of attending the Internet2 Global Summit in Denver as a new participant on the corporate side. The company I presently work for, Blackboard, formally joined the organization this week (April 9, 2014) and is active in Internet2’s Net+ initiative. Attending the meeting and talking with friends, experts, leaders and past colleagues reminded me as to what makes higher education special beyond what the public sees — higher education recognizes and derives great value out of collaboration that often leads toward solutions that change the world. Don’t think so? Well, what about the Internet? The Web? Social networking? Streaming video? All of these things trace their roots to higher education and are a testament to the potential embedded in collaboration across organizational boundaries.

Increasingly, the survival of organizations, institutions and companies depend on the ability to appropriately share ideas, information, concepts and solutions with one another. I say appropriately because each player within a collaboration has its own motivations for doing so and should respect the reasons why each is participating. For a research team, it may be to advance a particular approach or concept that hasn’t been tried before; for an institution it may be to enable interoperability across systems and organizations or share and reduce innovation risk; and for a company, it may be to increase adoption flexibility and attractiveness to new markets. Whatever the reasons may be, the important focal point should be discovering new pathways that mutually benefit all participants.

When I did IEEE standards work about a decade ago, one of the things that tended to get into the way of progress was irrational adherence to invisible commercial advantage. Having worked on the corporate side, I get it; a company is constantly striving to be better than its competitors. However, in an environment that promotes interoperability (such as in standards work) or within an ecosystem that embraces collaboration for collective benefit (such as higher education), clinging to siloed ideals just doesn’t fit. Participation means working in the gray areas, and yes, respecting the motivations for participation. It doesn’t mean sharing everything; it does mean sharing what is important to do what’s right.

Like the sales person who was new to higher education and was stunned to discover the degree to which institutions share nearly everything, a company that is entering into a community where the potential and realization of connected value is the norm will likely find itself in an awkward and foreign place. However, if it enters to do the right thing, respects the values of others and becomes an active participant in the community, the company will likely derive much more connected value than it ever could standing alone.