Rise of the Wikipedians

As detailed in our ongoing series of research reports, technical people in organizations are increasingly critical to success. They have specific workplace needs, and face particular pitfalls when taking on leadership roles.

The challenge of soliciting strong contribution from a population of experts is nicely illustrated by the delicate balance that Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, faces every day. While Wales is certainly the “spiritual leader” of the army of contributors, his leadership still needs to respect specific boundaries. Wales is not the “boss” of Wikipedia. Contributors do not work for him – in any sense of that term. He faces the challenge of both directing the organization on one hand while also meeting the needs of the contributors on the other – a dilemma that will resonate with any manager operating in a highly technical environment.

As we seek to understand the success of Wikipedia, we will explore workplace parallels that can be applied in your own work environment.

Rise of the Wikipedians

While over 19 million people have accounts and may have contributed in some fashion to making Wikipedia the 30 million page, 285 languages resource it is today, the bulk of the 625 million edits came from 80,000 “Wikipedians.” These are experts who take passionate ownership of the project, keeping Wikipedia astonishingly current and excruciatingly accurate.

Consequently, Wales’ role is that of “Benevolent Dictator for Life” – meaning the role of supreme arbitrator when disagreements emerge within the ranks of experts. Otherwise, he has learned to be as hands-off as possible in the editorial process. This sense of autonomy and participation in the mission and goals of Wikipedia is what makes contribution so high. Remember, there are no incentives to participate beyond the gratification provided by the work itself.

This approach has certainly worked. In 2008, BusinessInsider  estimated the value of Wikipedia at $7 Billion – second only to Facebook on its list of “Most Valuable Digital Startups” for that period. So why would thousands of experts provide their time for free to build such a valuable asset when they have no financial incentive to do so?

Personal motivation

Not surprisingly, this question has attracted quite a bit of research and not just by those looking to get rich off the free labor of others.

A 2007 paper on the motivations of Wikipedians found that “the most commonly indicated motives were ‘fun,’ ‘ideology,’ and ‘values,’ whereas the least frequently indicated motives were ‘career,’ ‘social,’ and ‘protective.’” See: “What Motivates Wikipedians.”

Workplace parallel: Understand what motivates the technical people on your team. Remember that for many technical experts, work is – in itself – fun. Effective leaders in technical environments understand this and get out of the way, letting technical people do what they do best – solve problems.

Belief in the mission of the organization

Clearly, Wikipedia is driven by a higher-level purpose. It famously put out of business many other for-profit encyclopedia-like resources despite these alternatives being significantly better funded and relying on a professional expert group of contributors (Microsoft Encarta, which shut down in October 2009, is a prime example). Much of the commitment of the Wikipedians comes from their belief and dedication to the five pillars – the fundamental principles by which Wikipedia operates.

Workplace parallel: Create a sense of common purpose around the goals of the organization, the team, and the projects. It is your job as a leader to help promote the mission.

Faith that the owners won’t change philosophies

There has been a lot of speculation that Wales or other members of the leadership team at Wikipedia will one day change models: that they will accept advertising or run the website on a for-profit basis. [See this recent article in Salon.com for an example of the criticism related to paid contributors.] But despite the rumors, both the established legal structure and behaviors of leadership provide faith that they will remain true to their commitment to open-access and a not-for-profit approach.

Workplace parallel: Build trust by demonstrating a commitment to the current direction – not through words but through visible actions. Demonstrate this commitment in forums other than the standard business meetings and communications.

Autonomy with feedback

Wikipedia contributors work alone. They research topics and dig up the most reliable sources of information to back up their entries. Peer feedback is plentiful and uncompromising as items are dissected and scrutinized. But it’s not personal: behind it all is a common mission of making Wikipedia the gold standard of online references.

“People are always asking ‘well who’s in charge of this or who does that?’ and the answer is ‘anyone who wants to pitch in’ – it’s a very unusual and chaotic thing.”
– Jimmy Wales (TED.NPR interview, July 12, 2013)

Workplace parallel: Provide autonomy for team members to work unsupervised – they will know when to check in and get guidance from you or from others. When people work independently, you might not always like what they come up with but that’s par for the course. It’s up to you to clarify the parameters for required contribution, to set some guidelines.

Encourage peer collaboration and productive criticism. Don’t establish yourself as the leader that team members need to review items and get a decision, even if you feel you are the expert.

Recognition from peers

Earning recognition from peers on Wikipedia is straightforward, but not easy. You have to be one of the top contributors and meet the standards of objectivity, impartiality, and authoritativeness. In large part, social networks (like online games) provide ample recognition to top contributors by way of scoreboards and virtual kudos. Wikipedia is not so different: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:List_of_Wikipedians_by_number_of_edits.

Workplace parallel: Find opportunities to recognize the contribution of technical experts. But remember to recognize them for their technical contributions, and make sure that most recognition is from peers and not from “management.”

Clear rules

If contributing to Wikipedia can be seen as a game, then all games need rules. The game might simply be called “Who’s right?” and the objective is to find the most reliable and authoritative source of information to back up claims made on the Wiki page. The objective of the game is also to nitpick other people’s entries for inaccuracies or objectivity failures.

“So there are a few elements, mostly social policies. […] The biggest and the most important thing is our neutral point of view policy. This is something I set down from the very beginning, as a core principle of the community that is completely not debatable. It’s a social concept of cooperation which basically says ‘anytime there is a controversial issue Wikipedia itself should not take a stand on the issue, we should merely report on what reputable parties have said about it.’”
– Jimmy Wales (TED.NPR interview, July 12, 2013)

Workplace parallel: Establish clear rules for your team, then stick to them. Build trust through consistency. People don’t have to like the rules – but with a technical population, once the rules are established they will hold each other accountable for following them. If you change the rules for the team, you need to do so transparently and make sure everybody is informed.

All’s not well in Wikiland

But is Wikipedia’s star waning? In the last few years, the number of articles on Wikipedia has increasedsignificantly and the number of visitors continues to increase, but participation in Wikipedia’s editing has declined. The number of active editors peeked in 2007, but has been on a slow decline since. (Wikipedia is also criticized for a lack of diversity in its editorial pool, which is predominantly male and middle/upper class.)

Many factors may be contributing to the decline. Primarily, the fact that the initial hard work of creating a comprehensive encyclopedia is now complete – there are only so many topics in the world and many pages are now in maintenance mode.

Bringing in new blood once the community is already established can be a challenge, but it is required to maintain vitality and creativity in the long term.

Workplace parallel: You cannot take the engagement of technical professionals – or any of your employees – for granted. Without putting energy into the workplace, things may drift and the level of commitment and contribution may dwindle. Keep the fire alive by returning to the founding principles and sustaining a sense of community and excitement.

Conclusion

Are your team members as committed as the Wikipedians? Are they driven by a higher sense of common purpose? Would they do this work on their spare time, on their own dime?

You can take inspiration from the likes of Wikipedia to learn how to engage and lead technical experts to help advance the goals of your organization.

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