Where's Your Wiki?

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by: John Sviokla

There was a recent NYTimes article citing a study by the magazine Nature which compared Wikipedia, and Encyclopedia Britannica for accuracy.  It turns out that according to this study the two sources are "tied". To me the more interesting thing is that there is a comparison between a recently formed, self organized, open sourced, non-commercial entity and the most regarded and famous storehouse of general knowledge that has dominated the high end of the category for almost three hundred years!.  It took a self organized, internet based activity less than 2% of the time Britannica had been around, to catch and equal it.  That, in the immortal words of Norman Vincent Peale, the great motivational speaker, “Is a profound fact that warrants your full attention!”

Why is this the case?  Well, the entire store of human science is based upon a collective activity in which smart, informed people, “debug” the thinking and the facts of other people.  Science is a collective activity.  Its impact has been profound, with the creation of modern science, which my friend Alan Kay (inventor of the overlapping windows interface that many of you are probably reading this within) marks at the beginning of The Royal Society — a national academy of science — in London, which was the first robust social system that consciously set out to share everything, and review the work to improve it.  It is only through this scientific social system that our representations of reality can get beyond the natural “bugs” and deficiencies of our thinking process.  For example, Maxwell’s electromagnetic spectrum, upon which all of media are based, is not intuitively obvious without the social system of science.

The economic impact has been extraordinary.  Juan Enrico Bermudez says that from the Roman Empire to about the mid 1800s, the global gross domestic product increase at a rate of .1% per year.  This meant that the pay of a Napoleonic soldier was not that much higher than a Roman Soldier.  Starting in the mid 1800s through about 1910, the GDP of the world grew at 0.25% per year.  From that time forward, it has grown at about 1.2% per year.  Science, and its fruits, are the engine that made that wealth creation possible.  As Robert Noyce, founder of Intel, was rumored to say at board meetings when he was frustrated about investment in engineering, “You know, the scientists and the engineers make all the money around here.  You other guys, just push it around.

The interesting thing for corporations is that many of them are trying desperately to share knowledge, but their knowledge sharing systems don’t allow their own employees to share what they know with each other.  Imagine creating a Wiki for every one of your tough problems.  For example, many engineering dependent companies like Raytheon, or GE, have complex products and services that need to have all the knowledge associated with them “kept”.  But, most of the knowledge management systems at large organizations simply die under the weight of a bureaucratic approach in which people have to document their products and services in a bureaucratic manner.  When there is a self organized Wiki, to which the engineers and sales people, and even customers could contribute, they could create the necessary knowledge, and have it self updated as needed.  After all, all knowledge creation and use is a social activity, and the best way to support its creation and spreading is to allow the “end users” to create it, improve it, and share it.

The breakthrough in Wiki’s is not the technology, it is the way that people can read, add, and edit the knowledge in an easy, flexible, manner, and the social system for review, and updating that is set in the community of participants.  For companies, who need to capture so many different types of knowledge, and update it, and share it with customers, the idea of creating Wiki’s for their important topics is something that needs to be unleashed – so that the knowledge of the corporation can be unlocked – economically, and organically.

Motorola, for one, has changed this approach.  They, like many engineering dependent firms, want to make sure they capture and share key knowledge in the firm.  (One can only imagine at the brain drain that GM will suffer with their current retirement offer to 130,000 employees.  They may not be doing well financially, but there are many brilliant people at GM.)  At Motorola, they began a Wiki to allow their employees to record important documentation about their internal information systems.  In less than a month, it had hundreds of useful entries, with thousands shortly after.  Today they have over 2,000 internal Wikis (see Dan Bricklin’s log entry on Wiki’s at Motorola, March 23, 2006), read by 60-80,000 people daily, and over 2,700 blogs with 4-5,000 people actively contributing).  The organic nature – in which employees were not “required” to do the work, but did it because that subset of individuals who wanted to “get it right” and “do the right thing” were unleashed and had a forum in which they could participate.  Some social scientists think there is a significant minority (some say 20%) of any population are “altruists” who will contribute to the common good as a matter of course.  Any organization with a hard to document, deeply knowledge based problem, product, or process should give a Wiki a try – for the costs are low, and the potential for creation of a reusable knowledge asset are worth the try.  Alan Kay, if he reads this, will say, "Of course, the internet was supposed to be a two way medium — Wiki's are just a crippled form of editing tool…"  and, of course, he is, again, right.  But it is a start.

Original Post: http://www.svioklascontext.com/2006/04/wheres_your_wik.html