Sunday, June 12, 2011

Not All The Smart People Work For You

Not All The Smart People Work For You

June 9, 2011

I first heard Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, utter the sentence, "because not all the smart people work for you" back in the mid 1990s. He was asked why Sun was open sourcing a particular software program. A new Sun manager asked: "Why would Sun work so hard to create a new piece of software and then make the source code available to anyone who wanted it?"

Bill was not being flip in his answer, but his short and concise answer could have easily been misinterpreted as being arrogant if you did not understand Sun's business strategy. Sun was not interested in short-term dollars, but instead interested in building a software platform that others would use as a foundation to build their products with.

What exactly did Bill mean by the sentence "because not all the smart people work for you"? By opening up the software, other smart people at other companies can work with it and make it even more valuable. There are countless examples of this type of collaboration in the computer industry. From a business standpoint, it has to do with: What is your primary objective and where do you want to make your money? This also has a counterintuitive premise that many in manufacturing find impossible to embrace: that by working with your competitors, it can make your own company stronger.

Let's be clear. I am talking about collaborating on an open standard or platform. I am not talking about collusion, but working together to define a standard interface and then compete for the implementation. MTConnect is a great example of collaboration. The MTConnect Institute set up its Working Groups in a similar fashion that Sun set up the Java Community Process (JCP) with the Java Specification Request (JSR) process. The basic idea is that you bring in industry experts to work together on an industry specification where all the involved companies have both business and technical interests. These companies cooperate to create a standard and then compete on the best implementation. The driving reason for doing this is true to the old adage: "the great thing about standards is that there are so many of them." In other words, they can stifle innovation.

Collaboration does not mean that a company should not exercise common sense when sending individuals to these industry standard meetings. My father-in-law was General Counsel for the Electronics Industry Association (EIA) and told me a few stories of members sending engineers to meetings where everyone else sent a lawyer. His analogy was it was like bringing a knife to a gun fight – never a good idea. Usually, these industry meetings are the technical and business experts who are working together. It is also industry standard that there are legal agreements regarding intellectual property (IP) to protect both the standard and the individual companies.

Manufacturing in general is slow to adopt this thing that "not all the smart people work for you" collaboration mentality because that is not how their dad did it and that is not how their grandfather did it. While it is hard to argue with decades of success, one also needs to remember Darwin's advice, "In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment." I would suggest that manufacturing is changing to be less proprietary, to be less closed and to be a less "go at it alone" type of mentality. Manufacturing will model the computer industry where open wins and proprietary loses.

There are also secondary benefits to open collaboration in that the morale of employees who are part of these groups typically show much higher job satisfaction. You don't have to be an HR expert to appreciate that employees who have an opportunity to work on something that is bigger than their day-to-day work is a plus. I know this is true because I experienced this myself and know many individuals who have stayed with a company because of this type of industry collaboration work. This can provide your more senior employees interesting career growth opportunities as well.

The next time you are considering how to attack a problem or whether or not your company should participate in an industry standard such as MTConnect, think back to Bill Joy's advice and remember, "not all the smart people work for you". You might be pleasantly surprised with the results.