Friday, February 20, 2009

Wikis are the revolution

I’m not the first to say this by any stretch of the imagination, but wikis truly are revolutionary and have already begun to change the way we think about “authority” information.

Don’t get me wrong; I still scoff at the easily-duped, research-authority-ignorant individuals who profess that single miscellaneous data points found through Google are enough to answer their professional questions. (Triangulate, at least, people!) But that was when most of the free internet was HTML pages created by solo operators or small groups who may or may not have had any real credibility or knowledge about what they posted. The more slick- and professional-looking the web page, the more some would place their faith in the site’s claims, whether or not the person behind the claims was an expert.

But wikis change everything. Now, certainly, there are some who would profess, “None of us is as dumb as all of us.” To a certain extent, that is true. Certainly, a wave of information pushed in an erroneous direction can gather momentum and be presented and accepted as fact.

Digression: I have a particular friend who can make anyone believe anything because he can say it with a tone and manner of great authority. This was especially useful in our younger days when he would easily pass as a respectable adult and secure all of our friends admission to…well, we’ll just leave it at that. My friends and I used to also play a fun game (for geeks, that is) at the beach called, “Lies about…” The idea was to come up with the longest list possible of convincing-sounding lies on a particular subject (e.g., “Lies about nature” or “Lies about Michelangelo”). Trust me, if you put a large group of 20-something-year-old past valedictorians together for a summer full of beer-fueled beach weekends, intellectual creativity blossoms. (I wonder if the folks that invented cheese racing were past valedictorians, because we did a number of what-happens-if-we-toss-this-on-the-campfire experiments, too.) Snopes would have trouble detecting whether or not some of the whoppers we invented were real or not. (I wonder if any of them are listed there.) We even took it beyond the beach, gathering eavesdroppers everywhere from the Cleveland Museum of Art to the Louvre as we waxed lies about particular famous works of art. You’d be amazed at what people will nudge in closer to hear when you and a friend stand in front of a famous impressionist painting whispering— in authoritative tones—improvised untruths about the intentions of the painter and his subtle artistic clues to his secret life.

Open collaborations like Wikipedia are likely rife with erroneous information, some of which, I’m sure, has duped me.

However, in general, I take a more optimistic view, believing that there is great wisdom in collectively created content. Peer review, even done informally, is very powerful, and, as we see in Wikipedia, often times the people involved in collectively creating content really do have expertise on that particular subject. Because I work in R&D at a company that essentially created its industry, my professional world is full of information that is not solid, universal truth. In my world, “fact” is defined by what our research and collective intelligence suggests up to that point. There is little outside authority that parallels ours, so we create our own assumptions. Our “facts” change with new knowledge. This is the nature and progress of science.

So, wikis seem right and natural to me.

The cherry picking opportunities are obvious. Anything that exists currently (or should) as a manual or reference document can easily be envisioned as a wiki, especially if the existing document was a collective effort to produce and will be a collective effort to maintain. In wiki form, updates can happen continuously by those who are best equipped to make them.

The difficulty arises as we start getting away from the obvious. I have one colleague whose company went to a complete wiki systems solution. This company, apparently, uses wikis for everything. Not knowing the details of this company’s operation, I can only say that this approach feels wrong. Wikipedia states, “A wiki is essentially a database for creating, browsing, and searching through information.” If that is assumed to be true, should everything be in a collaborative database? My point of reference comes from early in my library career when the sum total of my group’s systems options included a database system and WordPerfect. Working within this limited infrastructure, we put every piece of information we had into databases. Everything. And it worked. However, if instead of the 1980s it had been 2009, with the variety of intuitive, low cost, highly integrated software now available, that same approach would be ridiculously inefficient. More simply, consider typing a letter in Excel or doing complicated numerical calculations in a table in Word. Both can be done, but it is mismatching tools with applications, which introduces inefficiency.

When do I think a wiki makes sense? The first clue should be that wikis are, after all, part of the social media realm. At its core, a wiki should be rooted in collaboration. If I am the sole author of a training manual, for example, and no one should update the content of that manual without my consent, a wiki is not needed. That’s not to say that wiki software couldn’t be used, just that it’s not necessary. Now, if I am the sole author, but, in the future, this manual will/could/should be improved and updated by collaborative effort, than a wiki is the thing. But the best application of a wiki is when knowledge needs to be pooled to create the content. My incomplete portion of knowledge is complemented by (and, sometimes, overlapping a bit with) the piecemeal knowledge many others. When pulled together, the collective knowledge presents a more complete story than previously available. Voila, the benefits of collaboration. Further enhancement is achieved when others can refine, clarify, and expand upon that content to create a richer content product – continuous improvement. This process of completing and further enhancing the story may be evolutionary and infinite as knowledge grows and adapts.

Which brings us to the second clue: The wiki describes core knowledge. Although any sort of data or information can be typed into a wiki, the content of the wiki should be a record of core knowledge. For example, a wiki could be used as a way to compile a directory of detailed financial reports. But the reports and financials themselves are not really core knowledge, simply transient data. The better wiki would capture the observations and interpretations surrounding financial trends over time, the methodologies for handling financial information, or a company’s summary financials over time in the context of a company profile. The financial statements themselves should merely be linked references at the end of a wiki article, not an actual part of the wiki. Core knowledge is information that is summarized, synthesized, interpreted, and put into context, not simply accumulated or manipulated. Better to use spreadsheets and databases for those types of applications.

And the final point: The wiki has longevity appropriate to the knowledge application. Specifically, the content collection, as a whole, should be more evolutionary in nature than transient. Some parts of the content may become obsolete, but the overall content is ever adapting and growing with changing knowledge and business conditions and is continuously useful as these changes occur. Now, what constitutes longevity depends on the purpose of the wiki. For example, a great short-lifespan use of a wiki, appropriate to the scope of the application, is rapidly compiling a guide for conference attendees. The collective wisdom of the group can easily be contributed for the benefit of all throughout the lifespan of the conference. Even as the attendees head toward home at the end of the conference, they may still be adapting the content of the wiki to help each other navigate changing travel conditions and record learnings that could presumably assist in the planning of future conferences. It is adaptable, changing, and useful throughout the lifespan of the application, and, in some ways, beyond. Wikipedia, in contrast, may have an infinite lifespan because it is emerging as the mother of all (informal) encyclopedias. Certainly, entries will become obsolete over time and may well be deleted for lack of use because they cover topics that are of finite interest to readers, but the collective Wikipedia is continuously useful. There are a whole host of other potential wiki uses that would fall somewhere between a short-lifespan conference guide and an infinite-lifespan Wikipedia.

I really enjoyed Thing 16 because it gave me this opportunity to explore a number of wikis in which I’ve been meaning to poke around but hadn’t found the time, pointed me toward a few of which I hadn’t even heard about, and to think deep thoughts about the most effective way to apply them in my workplace. For example, we have a research guide, but I’d love to adapt this cool wiki model, this book wiki sparked some related ideas about how to incorporate more user input into our card catalog, and that conference guide wiki I referenced earlier inspired some event-related wiki ideas.

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