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strategy and business
 / Autumn 2006 / Issue 44(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Ambassador from the Next Economy

Long frustrated by the fairly conventional hierarchies in even the most innovative technology companies, Mr. Ito says he sees in his Warcraft guild a new way to organize, manage, and motivate people. With his guild doubling in size every month, he does a lot of learning on the fly. “Every week or so, I have to add a new rank, build a whole bunch of new rules, and throw in kind of ad hoc structures,” Mr. Ito says. “I’m playing with all the different kinds of management ideas I’ve had for companies with a bunch of people who are actually very dedicated. They will set their alarm clocks for 3 a.m. to run a raid of 40 people. They are committed to each other like people in a normal company wouldn’t be committed to each other. So as a test bed for these ideas, this is actually pretty amazing.”

Mr. Ito calls himself “guild custodian,” rather than leader, and he resolutely refuses to exercise power, instead letting solutions bubble up through the guild’s membership. He says he finds that people of widely divergent ages, cultures, and education levels make equally valuable contributions to the guild, and that his authority as founder is used best when used least. And he is absolutely confident a company can be run this way as well.

Even among Mr. Ito’s close associates, the idea that World of Warcraft guilds could represent a management laboratory for companies with real product offerings draws some skepticism, but others say they are sure that he is once again on to something. “Joi has a sense of what toys to prototype with that evolve into serious tools,” says Ross Mayfield, chief executive of Socialtext. “I think a lot of people have now cued in to the fact that WoW and other massive multiplayer games will be the next platform that the Web is evolving to. There are companies that are realizing there’s an opportunity here.”

Management expert John Seely Brown concurred in an April 2006 Wired article that guild management in multiplayer games represents the best kind of job training, as “a total-immersion course in leadership.” Dr. Brown says that he came to this view, in part, by watching Joi Ito. “In the World of Warcraft, much of what you learn is how to improvise or accumulate the resources you need. I see this in Joi: Once he knows what he really has to do, then he becomes incredibly creative in finding resources anywhere in the organization. He never even thinks about the fact that he’s just jumped over three silos. He’s found out how to find who knows what, and how to engage that person to help him. It completely slashes through the barriers in hierarchies.”

Mr. Ito says he expects to launch a new company of his own, its staff recruited from the ranks of his Warcraft guild, as soon as next year. Perhaps they will produce the next great multiplayer game, he suggests, and the organizational structure will be modeled after lessons learned from multiplayer games, a feature he concedes will probably rule out conventional financing. “Most venture-backed and public companies can’t experiment in that space, because investors just aren’t comfortable with it,” he says.

Some associates wonder whether launching another company will satisfy Mr. Ito, or whether his interest in multiplayer games will last any longer than did his interest in blogs. He is attempting, yet again, to complete his education and is studying at the Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy as a candidate for a doctorate in business administration. And he recently launched a weekly show on the MX TV network in Japan, called Technopolis Tokyo. Mimi Ito believes he might have a future in politics if the Web continues to change the nature of politics. If legislators are ever elected like guild leaders, by communities of interest rather than members of geographic sectors, then Mr. Ito might well have a chance of making it into office. In the meantime, as Professor Lessig of Creative Commons suggests, Mr. Ito will continue to play an ever more important role in the evolution of the Internet itself.

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  1. John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, “You Play World of Warcraft? You’re Hired!” Wired, April 2006: Extols fantasy role-playing games as leadership training. Click here.
  2. Joi Ito, “World of Warcrack,” Wired, June 2006: Tribute to Blizzard Software’s “glimpse into our future.” Click here.
  3. Joichi Ito’s Web site: Features “Where is Joi” plus an exhaustive CV, a Flickr site of photographs, two blogs, and links to the Web sites of the various organizations where Mr. Ito works and plays. Click here.
  4. Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Misa Matsuda, editors, Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life (MIT Press, 2005): Essays about the virtual community sparked by keitai (communications devices) in Japan, coedited by Joi Ito’s sister.
  5. Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (Random House, 2001): The cofounder of the Creative Commons argues for an Internet that balances intellectual property law with public domain protections.
  6. Christopher Vollmer, John Frelinghuysen, and Randall Rothenberg, “The Future of Advertising Is Now,” s+b, Summer 2006: How marketers can thrive in the kind of environment that Joi Ito’s life foreshadows. Click here.
  7. Creative Commons Web site: Clearinghouse for open source approach to copyright and intellectual property dilemmas, with Joi Ito on its board. Click here.
  8. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feeds. Click here.
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