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5 Questions for Jimmy Wales, Founder, Wikipedia.org—the Wiki-Powered Workplace

December 28, 2009
Related Topics: Change Management, Internet, Featured Article
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Jimmy Wales, 43, launched Wikipedia.org in 2001 in the spirit that collaboration combined with the right technology could create a free online encyclopedia. Businesses have since adopted the wiki (free software downloadable from mediawiki.org) to encourage collaboration. Wikipedia, the world's fifth most popular Web site, with about 330 million visitors monthly, operates with a staff of about 25. Workforce Management staff writer Jeremy Smerd spoke with Wales about how businesses use wikis.
Workforce Management: What are your thoughts on how businesses use wikis to manage their workforces?
Jimmy Wales: A lot of organizations are successfully using wikis inside the corporate network, basically for simple knowledge sharing. And they realize a lot of subtle but powerful efficiencies from people having a quick, easy tool to document what you might call the oral culture of the company. There is stuff people know—the corporate culture and shared memories—that can now get written down for the first time. And it's really very powerful.
WM: Have companies used it to its fullest?
JW: Not necessarily. One of the problems people have had in some organizations is that this is a tool that is both an expression of and a cause of flattening of a hierarchy in an organization. So if you have an organization that is a very command-and-control, authoritarian, top-down sort of organization, a wiki can be very disconcerting. Anyone can edit anything. There's accountability because you can see who edited what. To compete in today's world you want to get the most intelligent ideas from anywhere in the organization. The wiki is a great tool for doing that, but not if everyone is terrified. That's a problem that's not a technological problem. I've heard people say this is a problem in some companies where if the boss says something nobody dares touch it. That sort of defeats the purpose.
WM: Is that a problem in your organization?
JW: No, no. We're such a volunteer organization people feel very comfortable saying whatever the hell they want. They're not getting paid.
WM: What impact is the wiki having or could have on businesses?
JW: It will be a great thing when instead of working your way up for 20 years, if someone is brilliant and they start to get noticed because they are doing work in the wiki that everyone respects and it turns out they're 23 years old and not 50 years old, I think that can be very powerful. I think surfacing talent at an earlier age can be very powerful. Everything is transparent in a wiki. So you can see if somebody's put together a very interesting proposal, everyone can read it and say, “Wow, that's actually very cool.”
WM: Is there any technology that can identify who is doing good work in a wiki?
JW: No. It's very human. Figuring out who's an idiot or not is still something that only humans can do.
Workforce Management, November 16, 2009, p. 8 -- Subscribe Now!

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