Ask ten consultants how to build grassroots support for collaboration and you’ll hear ten variations on the same theme -- start with the right champion.

Until last week, I said the same thing. Then I read a fascinating article that suggests a more scalable approach -- start with the right process. What if transacting business in your corporate knowledge sharing “market” was so rewarding that people clamored to be involved from the get-go?

Collaborative Communities as Protected Free Markets

According to a December article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, viewing collaborative communities as protected free markets makes good sense. Employees trade knowledge for virtual currency (represented by points and redeemable for cash or company merchandise), and here’s the key -- value fluctuates based on supply and demand. The market (team members) decides what various items are worth and how much they’ll pay for them. As a result, content quality goes up steadily, and so does community participation.

Most companies put a fixed price on their intellectual assets, and that’s a problem. When we reward all contributions to a knowledge platform equally, regardless of usefulness (as judged by the consumer), junk content buries us alive. When we wait for the internal market to generate its own economic value model, we’re stuck with long lead times and steep opportunity costs. But supply-and-demand “pricing” eliminates all these issues.

5 Reasons the Free Market Model Makes Sense

Generally speaking, organizations fall into one of three camps: punish, praise or pay. In the first, collaboration is mandatory and you’ll know where you stand at your next review. In the second, incentive boils down to a pat on the back at the employee meeting. In the third, money changes hands -- but usually not very gracefully or effectively.

I’m intrigued by the free-market model for five reasons:

  1. It’s Scalable. If building 150 communities means finding 150 people with the experience, time and volition to take the lead, the bottlenecks are staggering. But create a collaborative structure with the irresistible appeal of capitalism (well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration…) and you build a community that wants to grow.
  2. It’s compatible with what’s proven to be the most effective incentive formula: a mix of financial reward, public recognition and the opportunity to do stuff that matters.
  3. It’s peer-to-peer rather than top-down, right in line with the core philosophy of collaboration and E2.0 in general.
  4. It makes economic sense from a corporate standpoint. No heavy up-front costs, no quarterly or year-end payroll bulges, no gratuitous incentives for content of questionable value.
  5. It sounds like fun.

The article that spurred my thinking is How to Find Answers Within Your Company (Hind Benbya and Marshall Van Alstyne). I’ve simplified, of course -- the article is well worth reading in full. There’s a US$ 6.50 charge to download the PDF.