It might seem very odd to look to a long-dead Russian anarchist for business advice. But Peter Kropotkin's big idea--that there are important human motivations beyond what he called "reckless individualism"--is very relevant these days. That's because one of the most interesting questions in business has become how much work people will do for free.
Kropotkin was an aristocrat who, after being imprisoned for his insurrectionist activities, escaped and fled to England in 1876. He also drew the first good topographic maps of Siberia and wrote a memoir of his revolutionary days that has become a minor classic. More to the point, he proposed in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, that the survival of animal species and much of human progress depended on the tendency to help others.
That I even know of Kropotkin comes courtesy of the Wikipedia entry for the "gift economy," the current term of art for this altruistic approach. Wikipedia is, of course, a prime example of the gift economy at work. Argue about its inaccuracies all you want, but the volunteer-authored online encyclopedia is on its way to becoming (if it isn't already) the world's dominant reference resource.
Open-source, volunteer-created computer software like the Linux operating system and the Firefox Web browser have also established themselves as significant and lasting economic realities. That's not true yet in the worlds of science, news and entertainment: we're still figuring out what the role of volunteers will be, but that it will be much bigger than in the past seems obvious.
"The question for the past decade was, Is this real?" says Yale law professor Yochai Benkler. "The question for the next half-decade is, How do you make this damned thing work?" Benkler is a leading prophet of today's gift economy, and he fits the part: his bounteous beard resembles Kropotkin's. He was treasurer of a kibbutz, a cooperative farm, in his native Israel. He doesn't mind being called utopian. But neither does Benkler dream of a world without capitalism. Instead, he has become an unlikely business guru, with a shop at the intersection of Commerce and Cooperation. "It's very cool," he says. "I find myself talking to all sorts of weird hackers one day and chief economists of major corporations the next day, and they're all interested in similar things."
What might those things be? Take the case Benkler makes in his 2006 book, The Wealth of Networks (available, free, at www.benkler.org) for the economic benefits of "peer production" of software and other information products--from journalism to scientific research to videos of people mixing Mentos and Diet Coke. Peer production by people who donate small or large quantities of their time and expertise isn't necessarily great at generating the original and the unique, but it's very good for improving existing products (like software) and bringing together dispersed information (Wikipedia). Often better, in Benkler's telling, than corporations armed with copyright and patent laws.