Don Tapscott, Alvin Toffler, and Prosumption

Don Tapscott is an IT an Internet guru currently associated with the idea of wikinomics.  His concepts came up in one postgraduate class that I taught last week, because we discussed the extent to which information systems had been so deeply embedded into businesses that you couldn’t deal with information systems separately from the business as a whole.  Tapscott had discussed this issue as long ago as the early 1990s, when he proposed that businesses shouldn’t have any sort of information systems strategic plan.  At the time, there was much talk of aligning information systems with business strategy, with the implication that you’d have a business strategy and an information systems strategy, and would somehow need to ensure that the two were compatible.   Tapscott suggested that you shouldn’t have a separate strategic plan for information systems, because the real way to achieve alignment was to ensure that information systems were covered within the business strategy itself.

An important concept promoted by Tapscott was that of prosumption – although the word prosumer was originated by Alvin Toffler in around 1979 (the Oxford English Dictionary discovered that it had been used, as a contrived word, in an American newspaper article before that, but nevertheless credits Toffler the idea for the word).  Prosumption refers to the effect of consumers becoming part of a product, for example when they contribute material to a website.  The designbetterproducts.com blog at http://www.designbetterproducts.com/2008/02/alvin-tofflers-prosumer-is-new-maker.html has some interesting thoughts, in the light of Toffler’s later writing, about the potential of prosumers to improve product design.

My reaction to prosumption is that it’s interesting and important, but not necessarily as new a concept as might appear.  It’s a familiar concept to the proprietors of bars and cafés, who usually recognise that their customers form part of the product.  There’s an excrutiatingly funny scene in Mike Leigh’s film Life is Sweet, where one of the characters sets up a restaurant, but nobody turns up to eat there on the opening night.   To make matters worse, the one waitress employed at the restaurant announces that she’s fed up with working in Enfield, and would like to move to Prague.  Of course the character should have recognised that his customers were prosumers, and invited a few of his friends along to create a pleasant atmosphere in the restaurant.

In fact I’d offer this as a more general observation on the ideas promoted by Don Tapscott over the years.  He addresses issues that are timely, and presents some useful concepts in an interesting and engaging manner, but his ideas aren’t necessarily as revolutionary as they might at first seem.

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