If volunteer communities increasingly add value to business…

The bookstore business shelves used to be weighed down with books
telling readers how to manage rank-and-file workers. Then, as the
information age progressed, the books described how to manage
executives and knowledge workers. The distribution of knowledge led
further to books on how to manage relationships with vendors and
customers, and finally on how to manage relationships with everybody
in the world.

If value increasingly comes from communities of volunteers outside the
compass of corporate management, isn’t it only right to shift
resources to support these communities? I have to deal with that
question in my own field of computer documentation, where the shift to
community production is as happening as fast as it is anywhere. (I
examine this trend in a series of
articles about community documentation.)
But many industries could ask the same question I explore in this
article: how can society shift its resources to support the important
new source of value in communities?

Volunteerism needs support

The idea that volunteers play an important social role goes at least
as far back as the idea of civil society. Jeremy Rifkin took it to an
extreme in his 1995 book The End of Work, where he predicted
that all production of goods and services would become automated and
that almost everybody in the world would eventually find themselves

Far-fetched as this scenario is, we can just look at current events to
see that rising productivity is leading to increased unemployment
(instead of sharing the wealth). So we might find it educational to
consider Rifkin’s suggestion for avoiding mass poverty and social
disintegration: support the volunteers who offer the kinds of
educational and social service work that don’t contribute to corporate
bottom lines, but make life much better for people.

We can even improve a bit on Rifkin, perhaps, by pointing out that
volunteers are doing things that do contribute to corporate
bottom lines, but are hard to reward.

Volunteers who are paid, of course, are no longer volunteers.
Companies have hit upon an enormous number of intermediate forms of
reward by now: invitations to focus groups and conferences, honorable
mentions, free products, etc. Still, serious problems in the concept
of rewarding volunteers have been publicized:

  • Rewards create incentives to game the system, which would ultimately
    lead productive volunteers to abandon the system as unfair.

  • Even when rewards are fair, they “crowd out” the original incentives that
    led volunteers to serve in the first place.

  • It’s just plain impossible to determine how much each volunteer’s
    contribution is worth.

The final point just listed is the killer. The reasons for it are easy
to state: the ultimate value created by any new idea may lie far out
in the future, and the give-and-take discussion around information
makes it hard to trace a valuable idea to an individual or small
group. Let’s look at this problem more closely.

The value of information

We all have learned what The Cluetrain Manifesto told us,
that markets are conversations. But markets used to transfer a
predictable value back to the seller, so that the seller could hire
workers and pay dividends. Conversations don’t lead to value that’s so
easy to characterize–so what good is a market to a seller?

Sellers can still marshal the resources to turn ideas into products
and services that people will pay for, but it’s getting harder to be
competitive that way. All companies in fast-moving industries compete
fiercely, but a particular fear grips the major portals such as
Google, Yahoo!, and Facebook (along with potentially major portals
such as Microsoft and Second Life). This is because information can
move faster than the agricultural or manufacturing capacity in olden

In computer documentation (as in journalism), certainly, it’s becoming
harder and harder to add value to what the community contributes for
free. So the challenge becomes how to improve the community’s

I find the key traits of value in documentation to be:

  • Availability–somebody has to write it in the first place.
    (Readers also need computers and Internet access in order to meet this

  • Findability–people need something better than current search
    techniques to find obscure documents, and particularly need help
    finding background when they read a document that assumes too much prior

  • Quality–this covers such general and complex issues as
    accuracy, relevance, and readibility.

A particularly urgent aspect of quality is keeping a document up to
date. Many a project has annoyed its users by starting out with
reasonably good documentation and failing to keep it updated. Somehow,
people who enjoyed writing something the first time lose interest in
maintaining it. This is just as true for comments in source code and
commercial books. (Many of my authors have built their reputations and
businesses on books they’ve written, and despite good intentions have
been unable to find time to update the books.) I myself have lived out
the feeling of writing new documentation for a free software project
and then lacking the motivation to go back to it.

Thus, companies and user consortia who want to direct resources toward
making software more usable can consider:

  • Offering incentives that make the best people contribute, while trying
    to avoid invoking the crowding-out phenomenon.

  • Providing paths through documentation, so readers can find what they
    need in their particular state of knowledge. This task is an ongoing
    research project for any particular body of documentation.

  • Ensuring continuity, by tracking the need to update documents and
    finding people to do so.

  • Training contributors to do a better job and make the most of their

The last of the tasks interests me in particular, because it provides
scope for offering my skills as an editor and O’Reilly’s as a
publisher. But we need some compensation for it.

I feel funny, of course, offering our services as editors or other
quality providers when the original authors might not be paid. But if
you accept that it’s harder to recruit people for supporting roles
than for leading roles, payment is justified.

To conclude, I think volunteers can be supported without being paid
directly. If they know their work will be improved to be more useful
and will have lasting value, they’ll have more incentive to

So now that the bookstore business shelves tell us how to manage
relationships with everybody in the world, where can they go from
here? Either they’ll tell us how to manage relationships with magical
spirits or the bookstore business shelves will vanish from the
market. Your guess as to which will happen first is as good as mine.

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