The Common Thread Among Github, Medium, and (hopefully…) Slack, That Will Shape Our Knowledge Economy

We are learning how much companies and individuals benefit when they are generous with what they know. If we don’t take a leap of faith, we’ll miss out on the opportunity to open up the way we work and collaborate.

A network of people and teams, or just lines with pretty shapes and colors.

This is an attempt at compiling some recent conversations I’ve had into a not so well structured essay. But hey, keep the chatter going, 2016 is all about conversational interfaces anyway.

Beyond Open-Source Software

The open-source movement is now taken as the way things ought to be — but it wasn’t always that way. Remember Microsoft’s letter to hobbyists? It was considered revolutionary and risky for companies to share their intellectual property with others. Now the open-source movement has evolved, along with version control software, so that we see platforms where developers can learn, use and build upon each other’s code. Look at Git and GitHub, where there are 14 million people collaborating across 35 million repositories.

The shift came about because the advantages were just too big for companies to ignore: large companies that open up extend their influence and small companies get the advantage of more development resources.

Startups rely on other companies’ open-source code simply because they can’t afford to (re)build everything themselves and would rather focus on exploring uncharted territories. Same goes for information and knowledge. The smaller you are, the more you need to rely on external sources to find out the things you should know.

Spreading Pay-It-Forward Economics

Yet, most people consider knowledge only defensively: What will they lose by sharing an idea, a link or a connection? Sure there are losses and risks, but knowledge sharing doesn’t mean ripping people off. What you risk in competitive advantage when you let your proprietary knowledge out, you could gain in reputation, whether you’re a company or an individual. And knowledge sharing works both ways: In exchange for sharing, someone will share with you. On many engineering blogs, you will find not only distilled knowledge gathered by the engineers who wrote it, but also a discussion in the comments mentioning other points of view. It’s becoming increasingly common to see blog posts as a response to another’s post, building on the original thinking. And of course, look at Stack Overflow.

When I first came to Silicon Valley, I recognized how readily I would learn in this environment. Silicon Valley’s open spirit isn’t limited to code, there is an overall “Pay it Forward” culture. We will see this incredibly open collaboration that has driven so much growth in Silicon Valley move from software into other industries. We’re seeing more tools develop to help people share more of their knowledge and more of the internal workings of knowledge, including how they developed it, where it came from and the way their ideas iterate. The open-source mindset is spreading to other parts of the knowledge economy.

Collaborative Networks Transcend Traditional Organizations

Many companies like Dropbox, Asana, Square, IDEO, Greylock Partners are now moving their blogs over to Medium — and not just engineering blogs. Medium authors have a single account, but can belong to many personal and professional publications. Publications benefit from the network that authors bring with them, so editors are no longer responsible for building up a community from scratch. Authors are more likely to contribute as they will retain attribution for their work, building their personal networks and portfolios. Both enjoy access to Medium’s extended network and distribution to a wider audience. Medium’s network models an explicit alliance between authors and publishers that creates long-term value for both.

Reid Hoffman would be proud. Building on the mechanics of both open-source development and social networks, platforms are emerging to support these new collaboration models. Like GitHub and Medium, these “collaborative networks” let individuals dynamically work together on projects that may transcend traditional organizational boundaries.

Bigger Opportunities for Smaller Teams

In a recent chat with Bradley Horowitz, Stewart Butterfield mentions how Slack increases “lateral transparency” within organizations. The next evolution is to share knowledge more freely — even across organizational boundaries.

Not everything is meant to be opened up, but many things could be. Being open just means we move from a world that’s black and white, to one that is more nuanced, where we develop control over the shading.

Small organizations with limited internal resources have no choice but to open up and collaborate with each other in order to survive. It’s harder for large organizations. They don’t feel that pressure and will always be the last to open up. Collaborative networks start with teams and small companies. Yet, many players in collaboration and communication software are so focused on large companies that they’re missing the bigger opportunity.

Building for enterprise is an attractive market, but it leads towards narrow problem statements and closed solutions. Large companies will ask how to get 10,000 people communicating. I’d rather ask how to get 10,000 teams communicating. The former leads to closed internal platforms such as Yammer; the latter looks a lot more like where Slack could be heading.

In the words of Chris Dixon: “The idea is to initially attract users with a single-player tool and then, over time, get them to participate in a network. The tool helps get to initial critical mass. The network creates the long term value for users, and defensibility for the company.”

At this point, Slack has built an excellent “single-team tool”. We use it at Kifi every day — and invested a good bit in the Slack platform to let you take Slack alongside you anywhere on the web. We and others think Slack’s reaching critical mass, and is in a position to build the next-generation enterprise network. Venture capitalist and Slack investor Chamath Palihapitiya hinted at the long term value and opportunity of Slack evolving to connect teams and facilitate both inter and intra company communications: “At scale, there can be a Slack community and/or channel for every company, every department and every project being done in the world. This is how we replace Outlook + MS Exchange.”

Connecting The Dots

Let’s say a network is essentially made of three layers: individual nodes, relationships between these nodes, and overlapping communities covering subsets of nodes and relationships. When it comes to collaboration, it’s essential to get communities right. Slack did. But in order to weave a network it’s just as fundamental to have individual identities that can tie up relationships across these communities. Slack channels connect people within teams, people connect teams to each other. Both increase network connectivity and ultimately facilitate the flow of information. Channels increase lateral transparency within teams, central user identities make up for conversational continuity across teams.

Simply put by Dharmesh Shah: “Slack is now a network and a network needs to support a central user identity. It’s just good, clean, living.” Currently, Slack teams are siloed. That early decision almost certainly made it easier for Slack to grow in the first place, it just had to replicate linearly. Enabling users to have a single identity across “connected teams” introduces dependencies, network effects with quadratic growth that are good strategically, but make it technically harder to scale.

But if each team adds to the network’s connectivity, the value of the platform increases as a whole. Even if they don’t generate direct revenue, open communities end up shaping the default choice for paying customers. Every new team strengthens the platform’s business model and helps defend its market position. Our leading example, GitHub, has nailed this approach with software developers. Companies now choose to host their own projects where the open-source party is happening.

Wisdom of The Teams

Slack might decide to work its way up and chase bigger enterprise fish asking for closed environments, or spread out horizontally and open up at a scale that creates sustainable and defensible network effects. Beyond strategic reasons, there is really cool intelligence that can be inferred from the network as a whole when un-siloed data can be mined across teams.

With the recent addition of Noah Weiss as the head of Slack’s up and coming Search, Learning, and Intelligence group, Slack is bringing in the right talent that could make this happen. Noah just joined from Foursquare. Over the years, Foursquare has developed a remarkable engine, able to bring up relevant and concise intel in timely fashion. It’s collaborative network intelligence at its finest. As an engineer in a small startup, I want Slack to understand me as an individual and help me connect with experts not just internally but anywhere, whether they’re in my company or in any other team I have been involved with, or should get involved with.

A Network of Knowledgeable Allies

At Kifi, we want to open up the way people and companies work together. We set out to “Connect People With Knowledge”. In not so short form, we aim to connect people with and through knowledge, in and across teams, so that we can understand, utilize and expand what we know together.

We started out as “a search engine powered by the people you trust”, with ties back to social bookmarking — Kifi stands for “Keep it. Find it”. As we introduced richer ways for people to contribute to the network, explicitly (e.g. tagging) or implicitly (e.g. discussions), we also added finer ways to control who could access information. Teams became first-class citizens and got their own protected space. Thus Kifi evolved beyond search to enable fluid ways to share and collaborate online. At some point, we realized Kifi was not really a search engine powered by a network, but a collaborative network with really good search.

All of this really means is that, over the last three years, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing how people share, find and capture information online. We’ve spent just as much time figuring out how we can help, and even more time debating why anyone should care.

There’s a need for continuous organization, deep search and timely discovery of all assets accumulated over time by a team, captured across platforms and applications without loss of context. There’s remarkable intelligence lost in everyday’s chatter, fragmented interactions that bring to light the internal workings of ideation and knowledge.

We deliberately made a decision to build not just for teams, but for people in teams. So we approached collaboration the same way GitHub let developers belong to multiple organizations, and Medium let authors contribute to multiple publications. Teams can set clear restrictions, when it makes sense, and people can collaborate across organizational boundaries, when it makes sense. People’s individual accounts stay with them if they change jobs, teams or work at more than one company at once.

In a fluid talent market like Silicon Valley, it’s common for most technology employees to change jobs every two to three years. As we switch roles, teams and places again and again, the lines multiply until they blur. Integrating this versatility into the way we work will take over compartmentalizing. This is the rise of dynamic teams foresees Bryan Goode, from none other than Microsoft’s Office 365: “People will increasingly use networks to form teams of experts on-demand and dynamically swarm around projects and then disperse to the next.”

So teams are the correct economic and organizational units to start with and build upon, but you have to consider how to enable cross-team collaboration, too. And then, how open do you want the collaboration to be? We think the future is collaboration across company walls.

Don’t Keep What You Know in The Shadows

Knowledge used to be a resource we thought was precious and mostly private, to be let out in dribs and drabs or a controlled flow. Knowledge is still certainly precious. What’s changing is that we come from a starting point of being open, instead of being closed. We are learning how much companies and individuals benefit when they are generous with what they know.

Kudos to Jen for keeping this piece somewhat in check. 😼