Wikipedia Founder Pitches Openness to Content Managers

Jimmy Wales used the simple database software known as a wiki to launch a kind of open-source knowledge project called Wikipedia in early 2001. Today, thousands of people around the world contribute to the free, collaborative encyclopedia, which has become a staple of Web-based research. Wales, a former options trader, says wikis—which are written in plain language and accessible through any Web browser—can foster collaboration and knowledge-sharing in a corporate environment, too. Senior Writer Edward Cone caught up with Wales to find out more.

What makes these simple databases different from other collaborative technologies?

Wikis are really a social innovation, not a technological one. What gets turned upside down is the model of permissions and security you find with traditional knowledge management systems. Those systems are designed with all sorts of complexities as to who can do what and when and why.

The wiki leaves everything completely open-ended for the users to determine. People don’t have to get permission to do something useful. Think how often you see, say, a corporate document with some kind of broken sentence in it—a misspelled word, a hanging sentence, something anyone could fix but isn’t allowed to. With a wiki, they just edit and save it.

Doesn’t that kind of openness worry corporate managers who are used to control?

It does at first. I was consulting at the BBC and they said, “We can’t have just anyone edit policy documents.” I said, “Why not? We let anyone in the general public edit Wikipedia. And those are just volunteers, but you have control over these people’s paychecks.”

A lot of the troubles with wikis should vanish when you get them inside a company. You don’t expect people to vandalize the wiki any more than they would vandalize the Coke machine. If you anticipate problems with employees maliciously changing documents, you’ve got much worse problems.

What kind of benefits can a company get from this sort of collaboration?

One advantage is that it lets innovation spread by overcoming the fundamental problem of getting information to people who need it across an organization.

A wiki lets any company that has people doing the same job with multiple locations share local innovations—say, some time-saving trick—by just putting it on the wiki.

You keep it out of the hierarchy, and you preserve institutional knowledge that typically never gets written down—the way to fix the copier, or the preferences of a particular customer. You can’t know a priori what people need to know and share, but big knowledge management systems make a lot of a priori assumptions. Wikis don’t.

How good can collaborative work done by wiki really be?

Overall, Wikipedia is not perfect, but surprisingly good. A German magazine did a blind test of entries from Encarta, the leading German encyclopedia and us. Wikipedia won. Let me stress that this was the German version, and the Germans are real fetishists for quality.

At a Glance:

Jimmy Wales made his fortune trading options and futures, then founded a Web-search company called Bomis. He worked with editor Larry Sanger to found Wikipedia. Wales, currently a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, also consults on wikis with corporate clients.

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