About The Gazette Search Back Issues Contact Us    
The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 3, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 28
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

Open Minds, Open Doors

Some 17 or so years ago, as a department chair in the School of Medicine, I was overseeing the creation of new office space for researchers working in the field of medical imaging. I suggested that instead of constructing offices separated by traditional drywall and doors, we should use movable partitions that would create open Dilbertlike cubicles. My goal was to foster collaboration among researchers who might not ordinarily interact. "Openness begets communication, and communication leads to new ideas," quoth yours truly, thinking this somewhat new concept would be instantly adopted by our star researchers.

Instead, I was inundated with explanations as to why this was a bad idea, why it wouldn't work, etc. But I was not swayed by the protests and decided I would win the argument by simply holding my ground and insisting on the use of office dividers rather than fixed walls. The day the facility opened, I proudly walked over to the new building, opened the door into the new office space, and — voila! — there were my Dilbert cubicles. Only the researchers had won after all. They did comply with my request to use cubicles rather than fixed walls, but the cubicles were more than six feet high, so the effect was that they were virtually indistinguishable from regular office spaces. The best-laid plans... .

While I lost that argument, history is clearly proving the value of open collaboration in research. In today's environment, researchers are collaborating not only in open offices and laboratories but are working across the campus and literally across the globe. The once well-defined boundaries separating disciplines are gone, and the need to assemble multidisciplinary teams of world-class researchers dictates a degree of openness heretofore never imagined.

Open-source collaboration has been employed successfully in software development, leading to Linux, currently the leading operating system for large-scale file servers. Another excellent example of open-source collaboration is the Human Genome Project, in which scientists across the globe enter data from gene sequences into a common, shared database. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey is another example wherein large databases are developed to be shared by researchers working around the world.

An article in the New York Times last week described a unique approach to collaborative innovation used by a defense software company called Rite-Solutions. Each of its employees is given $10,000 in phantom money with which to purchase stock in phantom companies. In actuality, the "companies" are simply ideas for new products or businesses that employees have generated. Each employee essentially gets to vote on the worthiness of the idea by purchasing "stock."

The founders and senior management of the company, now in their mid-50s, recognize that creativity in technology companies oftentimes comes from young employees who are so far down on the organization chart that it is hard for their ideas to get heard. With this phantom company/phantom stock idea, young employees have a way of generating new concepts that can get readily identified by co-workers who recognize their potential value. About 30 percent of the revenue of Rite-Solutions now comes from ideas generated out of these phantom companies. Democratization of ideas is a way to combat bureaucracy in large organizations that depend upon human capital for their survival and growth.

Shortly after 9/11, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency noted that the investment adage "the herd is always right" might be put to good use in predicting terrorist attacks. The agency put together a "futures market" in which participants could buy in to predict the next major terrorist attack. We never were able to find out whether this was a good idea or not, however, as it got axed, in a wave of political correctness, as being too insensitive to the victims of 9/11.

Nonetheless, within the concepts devised by Rite-Solutions and DARPA, might there be the seeds of some new ideas that could change the research paradigm at Johns Hopkins? Certainly we ought to be pushing open-source research schemes as a way to increase the pace of discovery and lower the cost of conducting research. With the advent of rapid and low-cost methods of communication, and the ability to assemble large databases of information, researchers are already rethinking how research is conducted in fields as diverse as Egyptology and enzymology.

Everywhere in the world of information, the walls are coming down. Success in this new environment belongs to those who can think creatively and act quickly — which has always been our strength at Johns Hopkins. The challenge now is to adapt our world-renowned research capabilities to the arrival of world-changing data-sharing capacity. Here's my prognostication: In the future, the research "business model" of Johns Hopkins may look less like the NBA and more like a game of pickup basketball: footloose, fast and effective. In the marketplace of ideas, that's a stock I wouldn't sell short.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


The Gazette | The Johns Hopkins University | Suite 540 | 901 S. Bond St. | Baltimore, MD 21231 | 443-287-9900 | [email protected]