Challenging how knowledge is created

Keith June 12th, 2007

I went to a seminar about wikis organised by education.au a while ago (27 April), where Jimmy Wales, the “father” of Wikipedia, presented.  Another key speaker was Mark Pesce.  It was a great learning experience. 

We heard a lot about Wikipedia (a non-profit organisation), and Jimmy’s other organisation, Wikia, which provides wiki platforms on a for-profit basis.

One important learning from Jimmy’s experience is that it is possible to set up a sustainable wiki with as few as 5 to 10 dedicated people.  There is even one case of a successful wiki started by a single (very) dedicated person.  Jimmy referred to Wiki as a “return to folk culture”.  It is all about a group of individuals each doing their own bit.

It’s all about accountability, not gate-keeping.  Anybody can edit – the default position is to trust people.  This has also been my experience with our iStore here at Telstra over the last seven years – trust people to share their knowledge openly and easily, and in the vast majority of cases, your trust will be honoured.  The more you “lock up” your knowledge sharing with controls, the less likely it is that people will share.

The criticism most often levelled against Wikipedia is that it is “inaccurate”.  A famous study by Nature in late 2005 compared Wikipedia with Encyclopaedia Britannica online, and found that Wikipedia was only slightly less accurate than Britannica.  (This is a topic for a whole separate post…)

We are investigating the use of wikis and other social media here at Telstra.  From what I can see, some media fit some applications well.  Wikis are great for natural communities to share knowledge.  (I am less convinced of the need for internal blogs.)  I believe that we will have at least one community here where that will work well.  One huge benefit of the wiki approach over traditional forum or bulletin-board applications is that as well as providing the conversations that build up shared knowledge, you actually end up with a compiled body of knowledge.  You never have to follow threads and posts after the event to try to figure out what is was that we all agreed on.

I researched applications of wikis for a conference presentation a while ago.  Some interesting applications included:

  • A conference company that used a public wiki for the entire conference process – research, planning, promoting, registration, programming and managing the event itself and post-conference feedback and content distribution.
  • A global pay-TV operation that used wikis for the operational shift staff to hand-over information during shift changes.

Apparently the biggest wiki set up through Wikia is the Muppet wiki, with over 14,000 articles.  Jimmy also mentioned a wiki devoted to people who like to dress up as furry animals – a topic central to a CSI episode a while ago.

One other interesting aspect of the seminar was the application of new technologies in a very real way.  There was a free wireless network provided for Internet and VPN access, and there were even suggestions given for tags for participants to use for documenting the day in posts to Flickr and Technorati.

For anyone interested in the wiki experience, my best suggestion is to log in to Wikipedia, find some topics you know something about, and start editing!  (I also offer similar advice for would-be bloggers – get WordPress!)

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