I was emailing back and forth with my friend Todd Barr the other day. Catching up with him reminded me of an idea we used to talk about quite a bit that I still think is the best idea that we haven’t made good on: Red Hat Nation.
The basic idea is that a company like Red Hat, based on open source, has an opportunity to completely redefine what a business looks like in the 21st century. The traditional 20th century business is often very black and white: either you work for the company or you don’t. You are inside it’s walls, or you are not. There are clear distinctions between employees, partners, and customers. The most common way of depicting a company in this 20th century model is by showing its building.
In the traditional model, if I was to say I work for Red Hat, you would assume it means I am a Red Hat employee, and that they give me a paycheck, benefits, a desk, all the normal stuff.
But imagine for a second that the image used to illustrate the 21st century company is not a building, but instead a flag.
A flag is often a rallying point for nations, a symbol that represents a common set of beliefs. You see flags at the front lines of troops in battle. You see flags hanging outside the door of homes. You see flags on clothing, at sporting events, in many places where people who share common traits gather.
I wonder if the 21st century corporation could operate more like a nation with a flag than a business with a building. Here how Wikipedia defines a nation:
“A nation is a cultural and social community. In as much as most members never meet each other, yet feel a common bond, it may be considered an imagined community. One of the most influential doctrines in Western Europe and the Western hemisphere since the late eighteenth century is that all humans are divided into groups called nations. Members of a “nation” share a common identity, and usually a common origin, in the sense of history, ancestry, parentage or descent.”
A nation (as opposed to a state or country) does not have to be a physical place, and does not have to have clear boundaries or borders. Some people strongly affiliate with nations, and some people associate with them very loosely.
For example, I am a graduate of the University of North Carolina, and a proud member of the Tar Heel nation. I love Carolina sports, and watch almost every game. But when I was in college, I knew every player’s name, I would anticipate games for days, I would talk about basketball and football all day long with my friends. I would write letters to the Daily Tar Heel about seat cushion-wieldin’ alumni who weren’t real fans like I was.
But honestly, I’m just not as into it anymore. I still love the ‘Heels, but I don’t even know all of the bench players on the basketball team this year. Gasp.
So when I was in college, I was a lot closer to the flag, a lot closer to the center of the Tar Heel nation than I am now. Nations are pretty accepting of this sort of thing. People come and go, but they are simply moving further from or closer to the center of gravity, not walking out the door completely. And as long as there are passionate people at the center, holding the flag up, the nation can remain healthy.
So what if the 21st century company was simply a flag at the center of a passionate community? Where it matters less whether you are an employee or not. Maybe the definition of employee actually changes or goes away entirely. You get paid for what you deliver. If you do one thing for the nation a year, you get paid for that one thing. If you do 100 things a day, you get paid for all of them.
The lines between employees, contractors, partners, even customers start to blur. They all operate as part of one community, collaborating together instead of passing things over the wall. A bunch of employee-customer-partner-s working together with other employee-customer-partner-s to make better and more useful products and services faster together.
Imagine a world where your best customers were also your best “employees” because of the contributions, in terms of feedback, ideas, innovations, that they make.
Nations like this already exist. Wikipedia is a pretty good example, where some people watch and edit entries religiously every day, while some people might only update one entry in their whole life. In some ways Google operates like this with it’s AdWords service. Amazon.com has it’s Associates program. I’m sure you can think of 100 other examples where people are doing trying ideas like these out.
But the nation model for 21st century business would probably really start to take off if we could develop a sophisticated payment model that could track and reward work by individuals that “joined” the nation. Perhaps it would be based on peer review and micropayments, I don’t know. But I do know that we’ll have entered the 21st century business era for real when there is a publicly-traded company that has no traditional employees and makes 100% of its revenue by operating this way. That’s be wild.
In an open source world, where intellectual property takes a back seat to brand and talent, this model seems more likely than ever. And if you are aware of companies that are already starting to operate this way, let me know, I’d like to take a closer look.