Chapter Three

Why The World’s Gone SOFT

I believe there are four, inter-connected, consequential values which now shape how we communicate, and what we do online and, increasingly, offline. They are Share, Open, Free and Trust. They form an easy-to-remember acronym SOFT. More importantly, Share, Open, Free, Trust are verbs as well as nouns: actions as well as values. The central argument of this book is that, if we are to make the most of ‘open’, we need to design formal learning around these values/actions. 

I use the sequence ‘SOFT’ – and not FOST or TOFS – because each set of values and actions creates the need for the one that follows. Whilst the word ‘soft’ may conjure up images of hippy liberalism, the reality is that the actions of sharing, opening, freeing and trusting are starting to disrupt business models, marketing strategies and organisational charts around the world. In effect, life is already becoming a great deal harder for any leader who doesn’t embrace SOFT. 

We should be in no doubt that businesses, schools and colleges that continue with ‘command and control’ as their dominant forms of leadership and intellectual property strategies are facing extinction, possibly within five to ten years. Why? Because we, as consumers, employees and, crucially, learners, won’t stand for it anymore. 

If collaborative participation now shapes and empowers everything we do socially, why should we revert to unquestioning acquiescence when we work and study? And who knew that, having been relentlessly reminded that capitalism was only made possible by self-interest and a desire to acquire, we’d actually discover generosity and support for the common good, because of SOFT?

Before looking at each of these values/actions in turn, let’s return for a moment to my irregular heart, as diagnosed in the introduction. Aside from the sheer relief of talking to people who felt just like me (which even the most empathetic doctors can’t do), my initial reaction upon meeting fellow Afibbers was one of hope. Because here were many people who seemed to have controlled their condition, albeit through adopting differing strategies, when the best-received medical wisdom one could hope for was to slow the advance toward permanent Afib, not reverse it. How had they managed to do it? Not only that, if they were now well, why weren’t they off this forum, living life to the full? 

Of course, as I soon realised, once I’d begun to control my condition, the people who benefit most from the collective wisdom found on forums feel the greatest need to reciprocate. So there was Jackie Burgess, a retired nutritionist from the American mid-west, offering expert advice on diets or supplements to try, long after her Afib had stopped troubling her. Or Canadian forum-founder Hans Larsen, a former engineer who, after developing atrial fibrillation, devoted himself to researching the condition to the point where he has so far written six books on the subject. We now have a label for the likes of Hans and Jackie: ‘pro-am’, to denote people who are occupationally amateur, but with a professional level of expertise in their chosen field. Forums are full of them. Pro-ams always existed, we just didn’t know where to find them until the internet came along.

During my annual check-ups at the heart hospital, I occasionally describe to the consultants the enormous database of users, condition triggers, side effects, mental and physical symptoms, and novel solutions people have found to make their lives bearable again. They politely listen, but they are yet to ask for the relevant website address. Let me be clear: I have enormous respect for these hard-working, dedicated, professionals who always have much sicker people than me to attend to. But, for a teaching hospital, they seemed remarkably uninterested in how patients learn.

So, let’s now look at each of these values/actions in turn, along with some striking examples of how they help us get stuff done.


In his book, ‘Here Comes Everybody’, Clay Shirky detailed the growth of sharing on the internet – from pictures of cute cats, to videos of brutally suppressed demonstrations. One of Shirky’s assertions was that sharing inevitably leads to collaboration, and that online collaboration would, in the future, lead to collaborative action. The future is much closer than it used to be: within just two years of Here Comes Everybody’s publication, the Arab Spring had arrived, its spread made possible by YouTube, Facebook and a large number of forums and messaging services. 

Much has also been written about social media’s darker manipulations, such as cyber-bullying, paedophilia, and the emergence of disturbing pro-anorexia, and pro-suicide forums. From time to time, there will even be a moral panic around the dangers of terrorist groups using the internet to recruit and radicalise young people. The UK government considered blocking Facebook during the English Riots of 2011, yet – without a hint of irony – celebrated the ousting of Arab dictators on its own Facebook pages. Social media holds up a moral mirror to ourselves, and we don’t always like what we see. But we delude ourselves if we believe that simply closing down such channels of communication will make the bad guys go away. Terrorists used to communicate by letter, but we didn’t try to ban stamps; we teach our children how to cross the road, we don’t ban cars. The blocking of social media sites in schools – the default position in the US and UK – not only inhibits learning, it does nothing to help our kids develop the digital literacy skills (knowing which information sources can be trusted, how to verify accuracy, etc.) they will need beyond school. 

On balance, the phenomenal rise in sharing is overwhelmingly a good thing. And it’s not all about posting photos of your friends drinking too many beers, on social networking sites, either. Take the unexpected growth of and its subsequent spin-off, Both have enabled mothers of any age (Gransnet has subsequently built a virtual ‘shed’ for granddads to meet in) to share their parenting tips, challenges and anxieties. And the numbers are impressive: mumsnet receives 25,000 posts a day from over 600,000 registered users. Employing 35 staff, they have become a political force in Britain, mounting successful campaigns to improve miscarriage care and preventing advertisers from using sexual images of children. 

In 2010, the Outdoor Advertising Association ran a poster campaign that foolishly claimed ‘Career Women Make Bad Mothers’. After intense pressure from, they were forced to replace it with one that read ‘Sexist Adverts Damage Us All’. Advertising associations are not the only ones forced to sit on the naughty step: during the 2010 General Election campaign, the Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, committed a serious faux-pas – subsequently referred to as ‘biscuit-gate’ by a delighted media – by being unable, or unwilling, to name his favourite biscuit in an online mumsnet Q & A session.

The power of sharing, and its attendant feature, collaboration, lies in two characteristics: the speed at which knowledge is shared, and the capacity to support actions. Both can be graphically illustrated through the story of ‘The Claw’. is a forum for performance car enthusiasts. It has a niche membership, with a fair proportion living around Calgary, Alberta. Shaun Ironside, a local car dealer, joined the forum when, on 26th March 2008, a young man took a Nissan Skyline out on a test drive, but failed to return. Ironside duly reported the theft to the police, but wondered if members might be able to help. Given the market for modifying performance cars, he was fairly sure that when it was finally located, the Skyline would have been stripped for parts. He gave a description of the young driver who, naturally, had given false ID: ‘Distinguishing features on him were he was missing his ring finger and middle finger on his left hand... also had severe scarring on the top of his left hand. Light-colored, short spiked hair’. Ironside’s first post was timed 10.24 p.m. 26th March 2008 (the chronology here is quite important). Several posters immediately offered commiserations, and promised to look out for the car.

By chance the forum’s moderator pulled up alongside the Nissan Skyline at a set of lights the next day. Whipping out his mobile phone, he took a photo clearly showing the driver with the missing digits. He called the police, who said they would follow it up in due course. The photograph was posted on the forum at 4.19 p.m. 27th March, with the message ‘I FOUUUNNND THEM =)’ (the driver had a passenger). At this point the story went viral. 

Forums frequently propagate internet ‘memes’: images, videos or phrases which become manipulated and then spread rapidly and repeatedly. This is a classic case. Within a few hours of the photo appearing, hundreds of photo-shopped versions appeared – the most popular being a distorted road sign that labelled the thief, somewhat cruelly given his missing fingers, as ‘The Claw’.

It only took five hours to find The Claw’s Facebook page and the thief was identified as James Jacobson. By now, the thread had spread to forums all around the world. Even the Everton Football Club Supporters site in Liverpool, UK was following it. 

Within an hour, forum members had tracked down Jacobson’s employer. An hour later, and The Claw’s home address appeared with the relevant Google map. Another poster, Numi, claimed to have seen the car parked at Jacobson’s home, and once again, members were urged to call the police. 

All of this amateur detective work had occurred less than thirty hours after the original theft was reported. With momentum building, around 2.00 a.m. 28th March, Jordan Andrew posted to propose that members meet at a garage close to Jacobson’s house. One poster summed up the gathering excitement, “Shit, I didn’t think this would blow up to be this big”. Guest posts arrived from the US, UK, Australia, and Europe, all expressing support. 

Around 2.30 a.m., nine members duly arrived at Jacobson’s house, but with no sign of the Skyline, assumed Jacobson had taken flight and left, somewhat deflated. A few hours later, though, another eagle-eyed member noticed the car back on Jacobson’s drive and parked in front of it. With excitement running at fever pitch once again, the police were called. 

By 8.00 a.m., Jacobson’s employer had been called by several posters to inform him that Jacobson wouldn’t be coming in to work today. The car’s owner and the police arrived, Jacobson was woken and arrested. Of course, the whole proceedings were captured on mobile phones by Beyond members and immediately posted to YouTube.

So, less than 36 hours after the owner’s original post, a group of enthusiasts, acting together, had shared their observations, skills, knowledge, intuition and social networking expertise, to track down, apprehend and comprehensively document the arrest of a car thief. Their motivation and collaborative actions ensured that the owner’s car was returned to him, in pristine condition, before the car could be stripped of valuable parts. Better yet, the owner discovered that the Claw had left $22 and his baseball cap on the back seat of the car. Such was the notoriety of the incident by now (over one million page views in two days) that Ironside subsequently auctioned the cap on eBay, collecting $225 from the sale.

Inevitably, Canadian TV stations featured the story and a police spokesman appeared to solemnly remind the general public that they should not be encouraged by the work of to take the law into their own hands. This conveniently overlooked the fact that, despite repeated phone calls requesting help, they had played no part at all in the tracking-down of Jacobson. Left to the police machinery to grind into action, it’s more than likely that the car would have been dismantled by the time they’d located Jacobson.

I’ve laid out the sequence of events here in some detail because I believe it shows how quickly sharing can lead to collaborative action, and how empowering the creation of shared knowledge can be. Here was a group of learners, without direction or coordination, undertaking sophisticated detection work and making it look easy. They acted purposefully, in order to right a wrong, and were motivated by the support of others watching around the world. 

Two final conclusions can be drawn:

1. Souped-up car fanatics require little or no sleep.

2. If the cluetrain stops anywhere near Calgary, the destination isn’t police headquarters. The police spokesman clearly did not grasp the key issue here, and one which forms a central tenet of this book: that people will collectively act to determine their own destinies simply because they now can. The institutions, which are there to govern, protect, or indeed, educate us, cannot compete against the cognitive surplus of a passionate group of individuals acting in concert.

So the attraction of sharing to enable collaboration in the social space is clear. But what are the implications for business and education?

Collaboration and Innovation

Increasingly, organisations are turning to collaboration in order to accelerate innovation. If they needed any encouragement, a recent study provides confirmation. The Future Foundation surveyed 3,500 employees in companies in the UK, France, Germany, Japan and the USA. They found an 81 percent correlation between collaboration and innovation. UK employees who collaborated were twice as likely to have contributed new ideas to their company, compared with those who had not. 

Sebastien Marotte is Vice-President of Google Enterprise in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In responding to the study, he views greater collaboration as an inevitability:

“The speed at which ideas can be generated, tested and brought to fruition is accelerating faster than we could have anticipated – largely because of the explosion of social media and mobile and cloud computing. Over the next decade, the process of sharing and developing ideas will be dramatically accelerated by the advance of these relatively young technologies having a major impact on the way products and services are brought to market, businesses are structured, job roles are created and talent is attracted, rewarded and retained….For most people, communicating and collaborating in an online world have become the norm – organising a party, sharing news and views or coming together to fundraise is commonplace. For many of us though, cooperating this smoothly in our professional lives is more of an ideal than a reality12.”

Marotte sees the pool of collaborators widening dramatically in the near future, moving well beyond employees. The buzzword for this is ‘crowdsourcing’: finding new ideas, new products, from anyone, and anywhere. One novel experiment in crowdsourcing was instigated in 2011, when the New York Times ran a campaign to invite readers to attempt to fix the deficit in New York City’s budget. Creating an online budget simulator, they sought a wide range of options. They received 7,000 submissions in a week.

An increasing number of large corporations, including Dell, Kraft, Fiat, Unilever, BMW, Nokia and Philips have instigated crowdsourcing initiatives. Some appear to be attempts at genuine collaboration, while others appear to be little more than marketing strategies in search of a bandwagon to jump on. Starbucks, for example, invited customers to suggest new products, services, or areas where the customer experience could be improved. Launched in 2009, ‘My Starbucks Idea’ had received over 115,000 suggestions by its second anniversary – yet only 150 were actually implemented.

Perhaps the most impressive use of crowdsourcing is to be found in an initiative by Proctor & Gamble. Despite employing over 9,000 staff in research and development, P&G were struggling to match the levels of innovation of their competitors. Their solution has been the creation of ‘Connect and Develop’. External innovators and entrepreneurs are invited to pitch their product ideas, or solutions to P&G’s technical processes, to a development team. If their idea takes off, they are rewarded with a partnership agreement. Launched in 2006, Connect and Develop has resulted in over 1,000 externally-sourced innovations. That’s over half of all new product initiatives, generating over $20 billion of revenue income. Proctor & Gamble have turned the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome on its head: ‘Proudly Found Elsewhere’ is their new company mantra.

Do these invitations to collaborate lay down a marker for how business will be done in the future? Or do they emerge out of frustration with the inability of companies to establish internal innovative learning environments? If going ‘open’ is indeed irreversible then crowdsourcing is likely to become the norm – but that doesn’t let the companies off the hook in creating open learning environments. The most successful organisations are doing both.


If collaboration is a headache for learning in the workplace, it’s hard to know where to start with schools. First, most schools don’t call it ‘sharing’ anyway – they call it ‘cheating’. Think about it for a moment: the kids who are now in school will be entering a workplace where internal and external collaboration is the work. We prepare them for this interconnected world, by insisting that almost everything they do, every piece of work they submit, is their own work, not the fruits of working with others, because every student has to have an individual, rigorously assessed, accountable grade – if they don’t, the entire examinations system collapses like a deck of cards. 

Except it doesn’t. Almost 20 years ago, I successfully argued with a validating university, that, in our working lives we were constantly being assessed on two simultaneous levels: How we performed as part of a team, and our individual contribution to the project in hand. They allowed us to award individual and group grades. It cannot be beyond the wit of our school examinations boards to do the same.

Similarly, the world doesn’t come to an end for schools if we allow students access to the social media tools they use so prolifically when they’re out of school). At the time of writing there are 400 million tweets posted daily on Twitter, 100 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute, and over a billion Facebook users. For many professionals these have become absolutely essential learning tools yet most of our schools and universities prohibit their use.

Whilst a systemic obsession with testing deprives our students of the opportunity to learn the much-needed skills of collaboration, there are few such blockages to teachers working more collaboratively. Teaching, however, remains one of the most private professions. Schools and colleges have the freedom to arrange teachers’ and lecturers’ workloads so that teaching and learning can become a shared activity, but rarely exercise that freedom. 

Those schools that are ‘de-privatising’ the process of teaching and learning – by knocking down classroom walls, teaming up teachers to work together, or taking the learning into the community or the workplace – are among some of the leading-edge schools internationally. However, until such spaces and such values and actions become the norm, schools will continue to foster cultures of containment, not collaboration. Sharing is another example where learning in the worlds of work and education trails behind the social space. 


This could get confusing, so let’s try to draw some distinctions between the titular Open, as a defining movement, and ‘open’ as it applies to actions and values that support the exchange of information, knowledge and skills.

Going ‘open’ has become a global phenomenon, cultivated in the petri-dish social movements of the internet, but now also affecting our national and global institutions. Opening up the inner workings of governments could be seen as a mark of maturing democracies. Flattening company hierarchies and working with ‘frenemies’ – collaborating with companies who would normally be considered as rivals – is now a relatively commonplace feature of knowledge-driven industries. Open source, open information, open government, open systems, open organisations – it feels as though opening up has been the defining theme of the 21st century.

It’s not that simple, of course. We may have corporations and governments beginning to realise that it’s simply easier to adopt ‘radical transparency’ strategies, but we still have repressive regimes; we may have open source and open innovation, but non-disclosure agreements are still routinely deployed to intimidate legitimate ‘whistleblowing’. We may have Creative Commons (a licensing system which encourages free sharing), but we also have attempts to impose legislative shackles on digital copyright. 

Being ‘open’, in the context of values and actions appeals to people’s sense of altruism and encourages reciprocity. Sharing requires us to be open, so we do it. Ten years ago that usually meant exposure to a small number of colleagues, friends or family. Now, being ‘open’ is a very public activity. One of the remarkable features of the past ten years is how rapidly we have adjusted to being ‘open’, especially those under the age of 30. 

We are all still adjusting to the new demands and responsibilities that being ‘open’ presents. Employees get fired, marriages are broken, and lives are put at risk, because of Facebook indiscretions, which forget the world is watching and that actions have consequences. On balance, however, it seems enough of us feel that the benefits of being ‘open’ outweigh the attendant loss of privacy. In the personal story with which I began this chapter, if I wanted to access the wisdom of the crowd on the AFib forum, I needed to be willing to disclose quite personal details, in a very public forum. I got over it, more data was added, and I was able to make the connection between my digestive problems and my irregular heart rhythm (it’s stronger than you might think) and thus put a potentially disabling health condition back in its box. In my case, the trade-off, between a minor loss of privacy set against making a cognitive breakthrough, was worth making.

The advent of social media has played a crucial role in opening up knowledge and information. Whistleblowing, in a pre-internet age, was more often than not tinged with disloyalty – now it’s seen as an inevitable response to ‘covering up’. In May 2011, Ryan Giggs, soccer star of Manchester United and Welsh national hero, sought anonymity through privacy laws that allowed him to prevent newspapers from disclosing marital infidelities. 75,000 people took to Twitter to name him. What was he going to do – take them all to court?

When the UK’s Daily Telegraph exposed the expenses fraud of hundreds of British members of parliament, the initial focus was on the hunt for the source of the leak. Politicians were left in no doubt about the inappropriateness of this response by the public’s response on Twitter and innumerable forums. Suitably shamefaced, their energies became redirected to dealing with those who had falsely claimed, together with ensuring that it couldn’t happen again. As author and innovation expert, Charles Leadbeater has noted: 

Social media is creating the conditions for the emergence of a civic long tail, a mass of loosely connected, small-scale conversations, campaigns and interest groups, which might occasionally coalesce to create a mass movement. From now on, governments everywhere will have to contend and work with this civic long tail.”13

The openness of our social interactions has persuaded many industry sectors to seize the chance to talk more to us than to each other. There was a time when business-to-business relationships were the only thing that mattered. Not anymore. Increasingly, business-to-customer relationships are paramount, and since we’re content to reveal all in our online friendships, giving lots of personal information away to businesses doesn’t seem to phase us anymore. A good example of this, and of the trade-off between user-benefits and loss of privacy, is the customer loyalty scheme. 

Tesco, the UK retail giant, has the world’s most successful customer loyalty scheme. The basis of all such schemes is a simple contract: shop regularly with us and we’ll give you some of your money back. But the real value of the Tesco scheme was the mass of data, which Tesco was able to gain on the habits, tastes and spending patterns of their shoppers. 

Dunnhumby were the marketing company who helped Tesco analyse the first set of data in 1994. After the submission of their first quarterly report, the then Tesco chairman Lord MacLaurin observed: “What scares me about this is that you know more about my customers after three months than I know after 30 years”. Armed with so much ‘big data’,14 Tesco were then able to establish stock patterns, and target special offers, personalised to individual customer profiles, which gave them the lion’s share of the UK supermarket sector, which they still hold. Where Tesco led, Amazon, Google and the like, followed. Working with big data has become the Holy Grail of corporations, and with good reason. McKinsey have estimated that retailers using big data’s full potential could increase their operating margins by 60 percent. We are no longer surprised by sidebar ads and recommendations that purr ‘if you liked that, you might like this….’ Was our privacy pilfered, or did we give it away?

Of course, none of this seems to unduly bother us while we’re filling our supermarket trolley, or claiming our ‘free’ customer reward trip to a theme park. Because we want stuff, we’ve opened up. It’s hard to imagine, despite the protestations of data protection groups, that we’ll ever reverse the tide of being ‘open’. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that if we’ve opened up, then our public institutions should too.

We have seen how collaboration and crowdsourcing is making businesses more ‘open’. For many, though, that’s not nearly open enough. Innovative companies are opening up all aspects of their operations.

Many CEOs blog and tweet, though most are careful about what they choose to disclose. Some, however, have adopted a corporate strategy of ‘radical transparency’, encouraging any employee to go public on issues they care about. Some see it as easier than dealing with a constant stream of rumour and gossip, while others see it as good for business and customer loyalty. 

Tony Hsieh, CEO of online shoes retailer, Zappos, is a prime example. Zappos has a companywide wiki, so employees can list complaints and concerns and air their grievances with Zappos; sales agents are encouraged to point customers towards competitor stores if they can’t find the shoes they need; suppliers get to see all the financial information on the products they supply, including profit margins. Hsieh argues that the more customers and suppliers know about Zappos – good and bad – the more likely they are to do business with them. It seems to be working: in 2001 Zappos’ gross merchandise sales were $8.6m; by 2008 the figure was over $1bn and the company was in the top 25 of Fortune’s ‘Best Companies To Work For’ list.

Clive Thompson, of Wired magazine, advocates radical transparency: 

“Transparency is a judo move. Your customers are going to poke around in your business anyway, and your workers are going to blab about internal info – so why not make it work for you by turning everyone into a partner in the process and inviting them to do so?”15

Transparency’s Unwanted Side-Effects

Schools and colleges are now being held to account by government demands for ever more open data. It’s here, I believe, that the desire for information on the academic performance of students becomes counter-productive. Successive English governments have deemed it necessary to publish data on the performance of schools in standardised national tests, claiming parents have a ‘right to know’. This may or may not be the case. But education expert, Yong Zhao, refers to the need to consider education innovations in the same way as the medical community views clinical trials. The innovation may be successful on its own terms, but what about the side effects? 

In this case, there’s no doubt that introducing the publication of school league tables has influenced parents in making their (very limited) choice of school for their children. Here, however, is a case of data determining dialogue. Because there’s inaccurate, or no, measuring of many of the things, which ought to matter to parents – the learning environment, incidence of bullying, scope for parental involvement, making learners confident and curious – the yardstick of what makes a ‘good’ school becomes distorted, the dialogue impoverished. 

Since these aspects of learning are neither valued, nor discussed, schools have little incentive to become the kind of learning commons described elsewhere. That’s why ‘open’ is dependent upon context – government’s insistence on openness has led to schools becoming enclosed, overly focused on data and test results. So, the side effect may be that perfectly good schools get shut down, simply because we’re told we have a right to know. 


Socially, ‘open’ is a more complex value and action than share. It is also politically and commercially contentious. In reality, it marks a battle being fought for the control of knowledge. Governments vs. Wikileaks and US National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden; corporations vs. Anonymous. 

But it also marks a fork in the road for how businesses should operate. Nowhere do we see this battle more clearly than in Apple vs Google. Apple profited hugely through Steve Jobs’ insistence on secrecy and closed source codes. There are already signs, however, of customers frustrations at being ‘locked-in’ to Apple products and the company may be forced to open up more. 

Google have an unambiguous position on going ‘open’. They believe ‘open’ will eventually triumph over closed. In an email to all staff in 2009, Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior Vice-President, Product Management, spelled out the inevitability of open everything – systems, platforms, sources – and the ways in which it will change politics, culture, technology, indeed every aspect of our lives:

“It is counterintuitive to people who are stuck in the old MBA way of thinking, but if we do our jobs then soon it won't be. Our goal is to make ‘open’ the default. People will gravitate towards it, then they will expect and demand it and be furious when they don't get it. When ‘open’ is intuitive, then we have succeeded...’Open’ will win. It will win on the internet and will then cascade across many walks of life: The future of government is transparency. The future of commerce is information symmetry. The future of culture is freedom. The future of science and medicine is collaboration. The future of entertainment is participation. Each of these futures depends on an ‘open’ Internet.”


For companies like Google, being open also means being free. As we’ll see however, there are several interpretations to this seemingly innocuous word. Most of them apply to SOFT, so let’s look at them in turn:

Free as Value

On 22nd February, 2010, US student Dan Brown uploaded a six-minute ‘Open Letter To Educators’ to his YouTube channel. The video shows an extremely articulate, hyperactive, opinionated young man whose parting shot is ‘I dropped out of college because it was interfering with my education!’  The video has been seen by over 270,000 people and has triggered an extraordinary response – over 6,000 comments. Most of the comments are evenly split between young people either in, or about to enter, college applauding his argument, and older college graduates who are essentially chastising Dan for biting the hand that has fed him. 

Their rationale seems to be ‘if college did nothing for you, how did you get to be so smart?’ This seems to ignore Brown’s capacity for self-learning, and his argument that he didn’t need books or lectures on his course, as everything he did need was available online.

For me, the key point in his argument is not whether the particular college he attended failed him or not. Rather, it’s the eloquent summation of the bind all tertiary education now finds itself in: the value of knowledge, in the brave new knowledge economy of the future, was supposed to go up, not drop to virtually zero. So, given the high skills/low income future facing graduates looking for knowledge jobs in the developed world, why should an autodidact like Dan pay for college tuition, especially when the information he needs is freely available?

Free as Customer Expectation

Chris Anderson was one of the first to identify the way in which Free was becoming not just a business model, but an expectation. In his book ‘Free: The Future of a Radical Price’, Anderson refers to entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel’s six reasons why digital content will inevitably become free (comments are mine):

1. The laws of supply and demand: the supply of digital content has risen exponentially; conversely, demand has a limit because there’s only so much stuff we can absorb. The price of content, therefore, has precipitously fallen.

2. Loss of physical form: once there’s no physical artefact (newspaper, CD, film) we see it as intangible, and are therefore less willing to pay for it.

3. Ease of access: if we find it in a store we expect to pay for it, but if we instantly download it, we have neither time to think about the cost of producing it, nor do we have the inclination to pay for it.

4. The shift to ad-supported content: everyone knows Google makes its money (lots of it) out of advertising, so why can’t content producers?

5. Market forces in the technology industry: There’s more money in hardware than in software. Apple didn’t expect to make much money when it launched iTunes – but it knew that we’d have to buy the iPods to play the music on.16  This is a neat reversal of one of the earliest popular giveaways. Gillette gave away razors (hardware) so we’d buy the blades (software).

6. Culture: if you’re under 30, then all you’ve known is that digital = free. It’s a tough job for retailers to change that mindset. This is why many young people don’t seem to care about copyright – they believe information needs to be free in all senses of the word. When I worked in Liverpool in the late 1990s, there was an ambitious plan for the European Union to build a high-speed digital infrastructure for the city. I remember attending meetings where major IT companies were offering to almost give away their expertise and hardware, to provide the infrastructure – the servers and the pipes in the ground. I asked one of them how they were going to turn a profit out of this generosity. In a phrase which was just beginning to be heard at that time, I was told that ‘content will be king’. The real money was to be made in the stuff that went through the pipes. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Free as User-Generated

My seventh point, (to add to Handel’s six above), would therefore be one that the experts failed to see: 

7. Given the tools, we can produce too: a participative, creative, citizenry may never have been envisioned, but it’s here, so we’d better get used to it and to its willingness to produce freely. 

In our journey to becoming ‘prosumers’ (producers and consumers) it’s interesting to see how long we clung on to the mantle of the expert. Even Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, believed that you’d have to pay experts to write articles that people would want to read. That was the logic behind Wikipedia’s predecessor Nupedia. But academic experts don’t do anything in a hurry, and Wales was left with a handful of articles after the first few months of commissioning. 

Once the leap of faith in user-generated content was made, everything changed. Wikipedia went from a handful of articles in 2001, to its millionth article in just over 3 years. Since then, the growth of the blogosphere has also been exponential, and once Google bought YouTube in 2006, the afterburners were ignited.

The thing we all overlooked was this: people would gladly produce this content for free because the creation of it, plus a little audience recognition, was reward in itself. How did we have such a low opinion of ourselves that we couldn’t acknowledge this possibility? 

Which brings us back to Dan Brown. His ‘Open Letter to Educators’ video is now being used as course content in masters of education programmes at a number of US universities. So someone’s listening, Dan.

Free as a Business Model

Dan Brown’s complaint that he was forced to buy books that he didn’t really need highlights one of the last monopolies: academic publishing. How much longer a small cadre of publishers will be able to charge readers to access research that has already been funded through tax payers remains to be seen. I suspect that, at the least, they will be forced into adopting the financial model, which now dominates the internet. ‘Freemium’ offers basic services without charge, with higher-level use charged at a premium (though, in reality, because of negligible production costs, even ‘premium’ isn’t particularly expensive). 

The first major university to adopt Freemium was MIT, when they began to put all of their course materials online, for free. MIT Open CourseWare offers free videos, lecture notes, even past exams, in over 2,000 courses. One of their most popular courses is Physics 1: Classical Mechanics – yes, that’s right, physics. The reason has less to do with the subject matter and more to do with the teacher. 

Professor Walter Lewin recorded 36 lectures, which are some of the most engaging I’ve seen. The videos – covering everything from frictional forces to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – were subsequently uploaded to YouTube, where some have had almost a million views. In keeping with the Global Learning Commons that MIT now maintains, students anywhere in the world can share questions and notes in the ‘live study group’. 

So, where’s the ‘premium’ part of MIT’s offer? Well, that lies in gaining accreditation. If you want those extras – like a degree – you’re going to have to pay for them. That said, one suspects that MIT’s motivation behind Open CourseWare is not to lure customers onto their paid-for programmes. Let’s face it, they’re not exactly short of applicants, are they?

Counter-intuitively, those who choose to make content free, in pursuit of the common good, often find that income streams look after themselves. In 2006, Salman Khan (a former graduate of MIT) quit his job as a hedge-fund trader to launch the Khan Academy, to offer online video tutorials in a range of subjects and at a range of levels (from beginner to post-graduate). With a mission to allow people to ‘learn almost anything for free, when you want, at your own pace’, Khan’s academy has grown rapidly through a series of high-profile donations, from Bill Gates, Google and others. At the time of writing, the Khan Academy17  had delivered 120 million ‘lessons’ – by the time you read this, there will have been many more. 

As Anderson points out, free is rarely completely free – advertisers, cross-subsidisers, donors, all make free possible. But what we are seeing being played out in media boardrooms around the world are attempts to refashion business models, to see what the market will tolerate. When it comes to content, however, particularly digital content, we can learn from ‘generation free’: having grown up not paying for digital information, they will ensure that if isn’t quite free it’ll be considerably cheaper than it is right now.

So far, we have looked at free largely in monetary terms. But there are two further interpretations of Free that have become important values/actions, especially when trying to understand how learning can become more engaging.

Free to Fail

It’s become a cliché in management literature that a vital ingredient in innovation is the freedom to fail. Most executives are aware that innovation can’t really happen without the freedom to fail, but, as Vint Cerf, one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the internet, says: “There are many places where that freedom is not granted or at least it may not be explicit or very implicit, so the people with new ideas are not looked on with favor.”18

Another challenge lies in responding to failure. Most often, freedom to fail is withdrawn because of simply not knowing how to turn failure into a positive and profitable learning experience. Many companies’ failure response is the business equivalent of a social faux-pas at a party: pretend it never happened and change the focus of attention.

In our most innovative companies, however, a culture is shaped where failure embarrassment doesn’t exist because it happens often, and learning what can be built upon, becomes the goal. At Google they call this ‘fail fast and iterate’. Along with another of their mantras, ‘everything’s in beta’, it’s easy to see how they don’t just talk about the freedom to fail – they walk it too. As Alan Noble, Google’s Engineering Director, puts it, “If you have a work culture where bringing your mistakes to the table every week is a normal thing to do, it feels less like failing and more like learning”. 

It’s estimated that in its twelve-year history, Google has publicly launched around 250 stand-alone products, of which 90 have been cancelled. Think about this stat for a minute: that’s a 36 percent failure rate. How many companies would be comfortable with 36 percent failure? The answer of course, is one in which new ideas are flying thick and fast, learning is in the DNA, and where today’s failure gets ‘hacked’ into tomorrow’s success. Google Wave may have ‘flopped’, but the technology behind it was morphed into the much improved Google+. 

Free as Entitlement

Successful businesses and schools alike are introducing the learner’s ‘right-to-roam’: the freedom to learn where your interests and passions lead you. 3M were probably the first company to offer a 15 percent free-time entitlement, where employees could work on their own passions and projects. Others are now taking working freedoms still further. Electronics retail giant, Best Buy, was one of the first companies to offer their office staff the flexibility to come and go as they pleased. So long as their personal targets were met, Best Buy didn’t care how long, or where, they worked. 

The results were startling: productivity and employee engagement and retention rose sharply. The two employees, Cali Ressler and Jodi Thompson, credited with successfully implementing what is now known as a ‘Results Only Work Environment’ (ROWE) now advise other companies looking to introduce ROWE. Fashion retailer, Gap Outlet, piloted a programme in 2008 that allowed employees to show up when they needed to, and leave for home when they wanted to. Facing a high degree of scepticism, the introduction of ROWE has had dramatic results: in a single year, productivity rose 21 percent; employee engagement rose by 19 percent, and work/life balance scores were up 10 percent.

Once again, education struggles with the concept of learners having freedom to follow their passions. Just as Gap’s managers were afraid that handing over the responsibility for ‘being there’ to staff would result in mass indolence, schools and universities fret that giving more freedoms and responsibilities to learners will result in empty classrooms, missed targets and the curriculum not being ‘covered’. 

Yet, one of the longest-established radical experiments in learner freedoms, Summerhill School, founded by A. S. Neill in 1921, has always given learners the choice of what they learn, or indeed whether to attend classes or not. Received wisdom would predict that without strict discipline and highly-structured learning programmes, young children would behave ‘irresponsibly’. The school’s exam results, however, are better than average, and the English government’s schools inspectorate in 2011 deemed Summerhill ‘good with many outstanding features’. 

The great American philosopher, John Dewey, once said, “Schools should teach everything that anyone is interested in learning”. You’ve got to admit, it’s hard to argue against that as a mission statement.


All of the above interpretations of Free have game-changing significance for learning, everywhere it happens. They all have strong elements of counter-intuition, which probably explains why so few leaders make the leap of faith needed to make them work. But society is making inexorable shifts in changing how, what and where we learn. 

They’re being driven by some basic rights in accessing knowledge, in employee and learner entitlements and in our frustration with the erosion of our autonomy. If we want our companies and schools to thrive in the next decade we need to incorporate them into our learning environments.


The previous three values and actions all rely, for their impact, upon the fourth: Trust.

Most of the examples listed here would be doomed to failure if it weren’t for Trust. The crowd being sourced by Proctor & Gamble, Nokia, and others has to trust that the provenance of its ideas will be respected. Tony Hsieh has to trust that Zappos’ customers will see their transparency as a desire to form an honest relationship with them, not a sign of incompetence. And we all have to trust Google to handle the mass of data they hold on us, responsibly. Teachers have to trust that their students, given more freedom and more responsibility, will exceed their expectations (they nearly always do).

In Ourselves We Trust

In recent years, although we’ve lost trust in many of our major pillars of contemporary life – banks, media, politicians and the police – we’ve rediscovered our trust in each other. Now, I don’t want to be naive about this: I know there are scammers, spammers, fraudsters and hoaxers to be found all over the internet. But the remarkable thing is how services that rely on user trust have gained in popularity over the past 10 years. 

If memory allows, try to recall the first time you won an eBay auction. Did you doubt that you would ever receive the item, after paying for it? I know that I did. Now, however, we buy and sell without a second thought, and with some justification, since less than one percent of eBay purchases result in fraud. 

Even more remarkable is the growth of a site like where hosts in a city offer free accommodation to visitors. Despite being conditioned by a media which, a decade ago, would have classed such an act as ‘asking for trouble’, there has been a growing acceptance that offering your couch to a foreign guest isn’t just an act of kindness – the host also benefits from the cultural insights gained. 

Couchsurfing isn’t a ‘something for something’ service – only around 12 percent of friendships are reciprocated – but there is a generalised reciprocity, paying acts of generosity forward. In less than seven years Couchsurfing has built a membership of over 3 million people around the world, with abuse of trust incidence microscopically low.

The trust we place in such interactions works because of the service providers’ ‘reputation system’. eBay buyers and sellers understand the importance of positive feedback (fewer than five percent of auctions attract negative feedback), and because there are risks to personal safety, Couchsurfing has a set of identity verifications, friendship ratings and ‘vouch for’ mechanisms, in addition to feedback ratings. These words are being written in Australia, where I am swapping my house in the UK with people I have never met. The reciprocity and reputation systems give me confidence that the house will be as I left it upon my return. (Update: It wasn’t – it was better.)

The rise of reputation-based social sites confirms what we knew all along – that we want people to think well of us, and that we want to trust our fellow citizens – it’s simply that, up until now, we never had the tools to show what we could do for each other, given the chance. A spirit that was previously only seen between neighbours now spans the globe.

Trust in Business

Whilst valuing trust may seem like a natural fit for the social space, it has always been a harder sell in the corporate world. Ron Shaich had built the Panera Bread Company into one of the biggest bakery brands in America, but was curious to see if trust made business, as well as social, sense. In May 2010 he opened the Panera Cares Community Cafe in Colorado. There are no prices in the cafe, and no cash registers. People put what they can afford into a donations box, (thus preserving everyone’s dignity) and if they can’t afford anything they volunteer an hour or so of their time. 

As a social experiment, it worked. On average, 20 percent of people pay more than the normal selling price, because they know they are supporting the 20 percent who pay a little less. And because running costs are low, thanks to the volunteers, the cafe is thriving. Shaich’s plan is to open four more community cafes per year, on a not-for-profit basis (but hopefully not-for-loss either). 

The importance of trust in how corporations create an effective working environment could not be more important, according to the people who judge it. The Great Place To Work Institute has 25 years of research which shows, year-on-year, that when employees are asked ‘what’s the most important reason for staying here?’ it isn’t the subsidised lunches, or other perks: it’s trust. Moreover, Great Place to Work have noted a direct correlation between the level to which employees feel trusted by their bosses, and the profit made by the company. 

When Trust Goes Missing

Trust is often linked to accountability through the process of target setting in both private and public sectors. In this context, we are told that accountability helps reinforce trust. I don’t believe this has ever been the case. Instead, accountability is usually what’s left after trust has been removed. The visionary management consultant, W.E. Deming, once described attempts to make everyone accountable as ‘ridiculous’, claiming that ‘whenever there is fear, you will get wrong figures’. 

The erosion of trust in public school systems has had catastrophic consequences, and will take decades to put right. As we’ve seen, attempts to make schools ‘more accountable’ for their test scores leave teachers torn between what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls ‘doing the right thing and doing the required thing’. The right thing is to teach students through personalised, flexible methods, according to their needs, interests and aspirations; the required thing is to ‘turnaround’ test scores, by ‘teaching to the test’ or, worse, ‘gaming’ the system. 

Successive US federal administrations have sought to improve school standards through high accountability. The pressure this puts upon schools at risk of closure and teachers – with test scores linked to pay rates – is intense. During 2011/12 a series of allegations emerged of inner-city schools in New York, Washington DC, Atlanta and Philadelphia ‘cheating’ on student test scores in order to hit accountability targets. Undoubtedly a case of fear producing wrong figures.

The result of doing the required thing, above the right thing, is what Schwartz describes as a ‘de-moral-ised’ profession. The double tragedy is that, in addition to the pressure put on teachers – 50 percent of new teachers in the US leave the profession within their first five years – there’s growing evidence that the over-reliance on standardised testing fails to improve academic learning anyway. 

The US National Research Council’s Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability recently produced a damning report showing that increasing student performance on high stakes tests not only did not increase student achievement in other measures of academic ability, but also had a detrimental effect on graduation rates. Other incentives, including linking teacher pay to exam results, or paying students to pass exams produced similarly disappointing results.19

Contrast this culture of distrust, deception and demoralisation with the Finnish schools system. For over a decade, Finland has consistently topped the OECD’s international comparisons on students’ achievements in reading, writing, maths and sciences. Politicians and education experts have speculated on the reasons behind Finland’s success. 

Pasi Sahlberg, Director of Finland’s Centre for International Mobility, is in no doubt. He defines the ‘new culture’, which transformed the relationship between government and schools in the 1990s, in this way: “Basic to this new culture is the cultivation of trust between education authorities and schools. Such trust as we then witnessed made reform not only sustainable, but also owned by teachers.”20 

It seems that we could learn a lot about trust from Nordic educators. In 2009 students in Danish schools were allowed to access the internet during final examinations. They could use any sites, but were not allowed to message or email each other. The Danish government argued, with devastating logic that if the internet is so much a part of daily life, it should be included in classrooms and exams. One of the teachers leading the pilot was asked by the BBC what precautions were put in place to prevent cheating. “The main precaution”, she replied, “is that we trust them.” You can’t say fairer than that, can you?


The Inevitability of SOFT

I’ve argued here that the four values and actions of Share, Open, Free and Trust are reshaping how we socially interact with one another. Since, with sufficient eyeballs and sufficient clicks, we can inevitably get access to information that’s being hidden from us, we want to be treated like grown-ups. 

We want to take more control of our lives, so we harness the wisdom of crowds, and the power of social media, to make all kinds of decisions, which used to be the domain of ‘experts’ in the past. Because we have so much more control of our social lives, we want to have more say in the way we work, and we’ll trade that freedom for higher salaries in choosing whom we work for. We want that freedom and self-direction in how we learn too, or we’ll vote with our feet, as Dan Brown did. We want people to think well of us, so we engage in acts of generosity, which require degrees of trust and risk, but increase our social reputation. 

We do all of these, not because we’re somehow different people in the 21st century, but because we now have the tools and networks to be able to do so. We act SOFT, because we can.

Since these values and actions have become so prevalent in the social space, our smarter businesses and our smarter schools, colleges and education systems are beginning to put them at the core of their mission, and of their strategies. Those that are ahead of the curve, like Google and Zappos, are finding that SOFT is not just good for customer and employee relations, it’s good for turnover, too. Those that are dragging their heels, like the UK and US education authorities, are not only struggling with disengaged and demoralised staff, they are seeing no increase in performance, despite a whole heap of greater accountability.

It’s simply inevitable that, having helped shape how we now live, and work, these values will become central to how we learn. Embedding SOFT values into innovative learning environments is not without its dangers. Giving employees and learners greater freedom demands greater responsibility. Being transparent may provide disgruntled employees with the means to act maliciously. But we have to learn how to adapt, and we have to adapt how we learn. As W.E. Deming once said ‘Learning isn’t compulsory…neither is survival’.


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