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Monday, July 23, 2007

How Wikipedia Works and Wikis in the Enterprise - HBS

Great article - How Wikipedia Works (or Doesn't) that looks at Andrew McAfee's experiences around the "Enterprise 2.0" article and Wikipedia's Articles for Deletion process. It's an interesting discussion of the net impact of Wikipedia's process - which can be frustrating, especially to casual users. At the same time, I've also had some very good experiences such as when my 10-year old son updated Wikipedia.

At the bottom of the article, the author interviews Andrew about the use of Wikis in the enterprise. A couple of things jumped out at me:

Sean Silverthorne: Is Wikipedia a good model that transfers to a corporate environment?

Andy McAfee: No is the short answer here, simply because (a) how valuable is the corporate encyclopedia, and (b) how much enthusiasm or incentive do we have to contribute to the corporate encyclopedia? But an encyclopedia is only one of the things you can build with wiki technology.

This is a somewhat strange answer. In my experience, Wikis often start (and sometimes end) as an easier-to-use replacement for simple web publishing (an intranet that's easy-to-edit). For example, you have a bunch of resources that get shared and you want to put them up. Or you have a set of reference pages. The old way would be to work with your IT staff's content management system or to hand-craft web pages and go through a painful posting process. The new way is to use a Wiki and just click the edit button. Often, you don't really expect end-users to edit the pages when you start out. Sometimes, they end up editing them, sometimes they don't. But it is still easier. My strong belief is that:
Anytime you think about creating a web page, you should probably think whether it wouldn't be better to make it a Wiki.
The article later discusses:

Silverthorne: Have you used wikis yourself?

McAfee: I can give you a couple of examples because I try to use wikis in a fair amount of my own work. I was organizing a 40-person conference of academics and needed to take care of all these administrative tasks that I really hate doing, like putting the schedule together. And I thought, "Ding, I'm going to outsource this to the people who are coming to the conference." So I put up a couple of initial wiki pages and e-mailed them to everyone. I said, "Here is the bare -bones schedule. You guys tell each other and tell all of us what you think we should do in each of these slots, and if you want to present in one of these 4 daily slots, just add your name to the list." And with very little pushback, the Web site for the conference self-assembled, and most people were quite happy with it. The amount of overhead went through the floor.

I also use them in my MBA course Managing in the Information Age. I tell my students that about half their grade will be based on wiki contributions. So I solve the incentive problem that way. And then I have to deal with all the problems of, "Well, what do you want us to do?" ("I'm not telling you.")

A couple of great examples. Both are uses in smaller workgroups which is probably an early place to look for adoption. I've similarly used Wikis in conjunction with a class environment, and it's quite natural, especially if you have collaborative exercises defined for the students.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For businesses and organizations, Wikipedia is almost exactly the wrong example, in that people look at the end product (the article) rather than the process.

On Robert Burns' birthday, I looked him up on Wikipedia. One-third of the article was about Burns the Mason. Being a member of the Masons may have been significant to Burns, and that fact apparently was highly significant to the editor, but most people checking an encyclopedia aren't looking for Burns the Mason.

(Sure, I could have edited down some of the masonry or expanded the section on Burns's poetry and his collecting of Songs, but I had real work to do.)

So an executive sees the highly variable results of a hard-to-understand process that's driven mainly by advocates -- either selfless ones, or people pursuing an agenda -- and has trouble envisioning how that process can deliver value in the workplace.

McAfee's point, it seems to me, is that there are other collections of knowledge besides "an encyclopedia," and some of those collections -- a product life-cycle, a development journal, a conference-planning tool -- make a lot more sense with a lot less explanation than does Wikipedia, which one editor referred to as "Unemployed Ph.D. Death Match."