One of the biggest barriers to learning both inside and outside organizations is the reluctance to share information. Departmental units and academic disciplines put up cultural walls that prevent people from sharing what they know. In doing so, people lose out on their collective wisdom. However, we are seeing some examples of critically important medical breakthroughs that have occurred because those barriers have been overcome. One example is in the area of Alzheimer’s research.
In 2003, a group of scientists and executives from the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the drug and medical-imaging industries, universities and nonprofit groups joined in a project that experts say had no precedent: a collaborative effort to find the biological markers that show the progression of Alzheimer's disease in the human brain.
Prior to this joint project, there were no mechanisms nor was there the will for these stakeholders to share data and methods. Kolata continues:
The key to the Alzheimer’s project was an agreement as ambitious as its goal: not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.
No one would own the data. No one could submit patent applications, though private companies would ultimately profit from any drugs or imaging tests developed as a result of the effort.
It’s not only Alzheimer’s research that has benefited from this model of collaboration; a similar project is advancing knowledge about Parkinson’s disease. What if we had this kind of cooperation among organizations addressing some of society’s most challenging problems, such as education, race relations, health care, unemployment, hunger, drug abuse, crime and violence, and natural disasters? What if all of the major stakeholders that are working on these problems agreed to combine resources and share data and make their findings public? What if all sectors (business, government, universities, nonprofits, and philanthropy) pulled down the walls between them and applied their combined knowledge to solving the most intractable of society’s problems?