Wikipedia - a model for business?

Even by online phenomenon standards, Wikipedia is huge. Begun in 1999 by Jimmy Wales under the name Nupedia, the service today claims 1.8 million articles in English, 4.8 million registered users, and 1,200 volunteers who regularly edit Wikipedia articles.

by HBS Working Knowledge
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Anyone can submit or edit an article, which is why Wikipedia has been lampooned for high-profile inaccuracies - although these have done little to halt the forward march of the user-generated encyclopedia.

When the concept of 'Enterprise 2.0' — a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Andy McAfee on the general idea of how Web 2.0 technologies can be used in business — popped up on Wikipedia, McAfee was pleased.

Then, however, a 'Wikipedian' nominated the article for deletion as unworthy of the encyclopedia's standards. He left the sidelines to join the online discussion about whether the article should be kept or jettisoned.

This gave rise to a case study by McAfee and Karim R. Lakhani, assistant professor in the technology and operations management unit at Harvard Business School.

The case explores issues of how online cultures are made and maintained, the power of self-policing organizations, the question of whether the service is drifting from its core principles, and whether a Wikipedia-like concept can work in a business setting.

Wikipedia employs a series of consensus-driven vetting processes that strive to ensure the information is accurate, is verifiable, is built on solid sources, and excludes personal opinion. Just as anyone can submit an article, anyone can also start an 'Article for Deletion' (AfD) review process if they believe the piece does not live up to those standards. After online debate about the worthiness of the piece, a Wikipedia administrator reviews the arguments and decides the fate of the article.

In late 2005, the scientific journal Nature conducted a study comparing 42 science articles in Wikipedia with the online version of Encyclopaedia Britannica. The survey revealed that Encyclopaedia Britannica had 123 errors while Wikipedia had 162 - making the latter uncomfortably close to the paid for Encyclopaedia Britannica's standards.

In May 2006, someone unknown to McAfee, but who had read his seminal article "Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration" in the MIT Sloan Management Review, posted a 34-word Wikipedia 'stub' — essentially a brief starting point for others to build on the concept. McAfee's article detailed how so-called Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis and group messaging, employed in a business setting, could encourage more spontaneous, knowledge-based collaboration.

From the outside, Wikipedia may look like chaos barely contained - but beneath this apparent anarchy "there is a very ornate and well-defined structure of participation", says Lahkani.

One element instilled by founder Wales is an ethic of self-governance and treating others with respect. In many online communities, personal insults fly freely, often fueled by youth and anonymity. Wikipedians, however, do not descend to personal attacks.

"The elbows are sharp on Wikipedia. It's not cuddly. But at the same time, I'm not entitled to call someone a bleep," says McAfee. Another reason the governance structure works, adds Lakhani, is that it is transparent — everyone's edits can be read and commented upon by anyone else. But the real basis of Wikipedia governance is a collection of policies and guidelines developed over the years that defines everything from article evaluation standards to the etiquette surrounding debate. A central core of about 1,200 volunteers refines the pieces over time and generally tends the Wikipedia garden.

"When I got involved in this Article-for-Deletion process, they kept citing chapter and verse the policies and guidelines to me," McAfee says. "It really showed me how much Wikipedians rely on these — they really are the foundations that Wikipedia uses."

McAfee and Kalhani were concerned that a group of 'exclusionists' could potentially make it difficult for outside contributors to participate, although McAfee felt that the existential debate between 'inclusionists' and 'exclusionists' would not cripple Wikipedia.

Asked whether the Wikipedia model can work for businesses seeking more cross-collaboration and to break down silos, the study authors both said that wikis alone could not achieve this - it required management to adopt thinking appropriate to the Web 2.0 model.

Lakhani said: "Technology's not the answer. It's the information and the flows of the information you've architected and the rules around flow of information that matter. If you look at open-source communities and what they're beginning to accomplish, they did that with some very rudimentary technology — e-mail lists and simple source code repositories. But the outcome has been incredible and is based on the architecture and rules of participation. If you bolt on wikis to an old set of rules, it would collapse and die."

McAfee says there are newer wikis that are corporate-ready: "These are recent technologies. Tagging systems and a lot of other things are recently available technologies. But I agree that the technology toolkit is basically in place; that's a necessary condition, but it's completely insufficient alone. What I usually tell companies is,

"Look, if you want to activate this Web 2.0-style energy inside your company, management is going to make all the difference. And if you manage it the old-fashioned way, or if you don't manage it and you just have the if-we-build-it-they-will-come philosophy, you're probably going to be disappointed."

"You need to be actively involved — I'm going to fall back on buzzwords — in coaching to get desired behaviours and leading by example, and not shooting people when they step a little bit out of line. The organization is going to be watching what happens, and you're going to send very, very strong signals one way or another that are going to be picked up very quickly."

HBS Case: How Wikipedia works (or doesn't)
Andy McAfee and Karim R. Lakhani
HBS Working Knowledge, July 23 2007
Review by Joe Gill

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