ONCE UPON A TIME, people used to think stuff up and keep it to themselves. And it was good. That intellectual property, whether it was a process or procedure, a formula or recipe, belonged to the “intellectual” and more precisely to the company that person worked for. If you wanted it, you paid for it.

Knowledge is viewed a little differently now in this brave, new 21st century. While there are still those who hoard knowledge like a precious gem, there are others who feel that the more knowledge travels around, the more potential there is for that knowledge to be improved.

The people at Yahoo and Google are good cases in point. They will frequently develop new products in the form of online services (maps, for example) and leave it up to their loyal users to “tinker” with that intellectual property until they’ve made it better in some way. Apparently, users do this because it’s fun and contributes to the common good.

That may seem a little odd to most of us, but in fact even some of the most proprietary industries are experimenting with this concept (in limited ways). What couldn’t be made better with a little collaboration? Apparently, lots of stuff.

Microsoft has made this the premise of its Windows 7 marketing campaign, featuring “real customers” who provided ideas or (more likely) criticisms that Microsoft addressed in this last incarnation of its operating system.

A number of companies have done the same thing by simply responding to the comments they receive through consumer blogs and social networking sites, especially when it takes place on their Web page as was the case recently with Dell. So many consumers complained about the difficulties with a specific laptop that Dell actually saw fit to answer them, and then fix the problems.

There are two ways in which such knowledge flows can work for optical: 1) ECPs start sharing information with each other (or continue sharing information) so that the experiences of one can improve or refine the experiences of the others; 2) ECPs start sharing information with their suppliers so that they can improve the buying experience. As we know, this is happening in some social networking circles already.

Of course, we can take this a step further and get the patients involved—sharing their information with ECPs so that their experiences are also improved.

Many in our industry will no doubt have upset stomachs after pondering the implications of all this, but it’s an idea whose time has come and it truly can make optical better.

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