The Wiki Factor

Do your business students know how to “wiki”? Wiki software, an emerging trend in online technology, has enabled a new brand of collective, large-scale collaboration—and it may change how businesses keep up with the pace of innovation.
The Wiki Factor

To say that technology has enabled greater communication and collaboration within groups of all types is nothing new. But I have been struck by the level of collaboration now occurring in online environments—the result, in large part, of something called a “wiki.” Wiki software, the latest player in the collaborative technology game, harnesses any group’s collaborative energy and takes it to the next level.

The wiki concept emerged when programmer Ward Cunningham wanted to create the simplest collaboration platform possible: a Webpage that nobody would own and that anyone could edit. Among the many wiki-based projects on the Web today, the most prominent maybe, an online encyclopedia. The Wikipedia has no formal oversight and no managing editor. It allows readers to make whatever changes or additions they wish to the document.

I’ve heard some argue that such a process should produce nothing better than graffiti; but somehow it works. The Wikipedia has become one of the Internet’s most widely used—and trusted—informational resources. The English language version of the Wikipedia now carries more than 800,000 articles; but versions are published in 205 languages, with a total of 2.6 million articles published worldwide.

How could the Wikipedia become an online informational powerhouse when it has no professional editors and none of the traditional “command-and-control” hierarchies that so many businesses emphasize? Simply put, it succeeds because, under the right circumstances, spontaneous and largely unsupervised collaboration gets the job done, even on a large scale.

I find technologically enhanced collaboration so compelling that Bob Wolf, a manager at Boston Consulting Group, and I co-authored an article about it titled “Collaboration Rules” in the July-August 2005 Harvard Business Review. With global competition driving the speed and importance of innovation, we have found that companies are exploring ways to encourage greater collaboration among employees, suppliers, and customers. Wiki is one mechanism that makes that possible—and it’s a tool business students and faculty should know how to leverage.

“In higher education, student input and responses are often wasted. At the end of the semester, we often throw away much of their work. By creating their own textbook, my students produced something they could feel proud of and leave behind as a resource for the next group of students.”—Richard Watson, University of Georgia, Terry College of Business

Before There Was Wiki…

The idea of technologically aided collaborative innovation has its origins in the development of online search engines. During the Internet’s nascent stages, users relied on a variety of small, upstart search engines that organized Web pages via various indexing techniques. The most popular engine, Yahoo!, worked by indexing Web pages much as librarians catalog books in a library—through the old-fashioned “brute force” solution. Each Web page was reviewed and indexed by human eyes, a process so arduous that Yahoo! was able to organize only a small percentage of the Internet’s total content. 

The launch of Google in 1998 changed everything. Its central innovation, the PageRank system, tapped into the collective intelligence of the network itself. By ranking pages according to how many other sites linked to those pages, Google allowed user behavior to determine a Web page’s importance. Google’s success illustrates the value of knowledge embedded in large networks of users, and how millions of independent decisions can add up, not to chaos, but to coherence.

Today, we see many examples of innovative collaborative technologies in similar forms—including wiki pages, the “blogosphere,” open source software such as Linux, and some of the more sophisticated online multiplayer virtual reality games. These technologies achieve order and effectiveness without traditional command-and-control mechanisms. More important, they point to something new for business.

Matters of Trust 

Wiki-style collaborative efforts work within communities of users because they establish systems of trust and reputation. People act differently when their behaviors are visible than they do when their behaviors are anonymous. They behave differently among people with whom they continually interact than they do with those they will never see again. In collaborative networks, users develop relationships and collaborate continuously; as a result, they are motivated to behave themselves.

Technology can strengthen this behavior by aggregating and displaying people’s past behaviors. We see this phenomenon in eBay’s feedback system, in which the reputations of buyers and sellers are scored by other buyers and sellers. They lose or gain points based on their actions within the community. Most people in the eBay community act honorably to receive positive feedback and win the trust of other users.

Of course, no collaborative system is perfect. In the Wikipedia, for example, people sometimes try to wreck articles by deleting material or inserting obscenities, but such defacements stay posted for only a few minutes, on average, before better-intentioned users put them to rights. Sometimes there are ideological or ego-based squabbles between contributors, but these also quickly give way to generally informative articles that accommodate varying points of view.

The editor of Encyclopedia Britannica has criticized the Wikipedia for posting articles that revert to a consensual mean, representative of merely average scholarship. That may sometimes be the case; but compared with Britannica, Wikipedia is more comprehensive and more up-to-date—and, most important, it’s free. And while Britannica is a frozen monument to past scholarship, the Wikipedia is living, growing, and rapidly improving.

Collaboration, More Broadly 

It’s not surprising that collaborative networks have been possible mainly in environments with no history of command and control, like Google, eBay, and the Wikipedia. The question is how older, more traditional companies can take advantage of this new model.

Toyota Motors, a company Bob Wolf and I discuss in “Collaboration Rules,” has dropped some of the restrictive protocols among its management, employees, and suppliers. Toyota’s employees openly share knowledge both internally and externally. Engineers identify the process improvements they make and put each improvement in writing; they then distribute those lessons very broadly, internally to other engineers and externally to suppliers. The result has been much in the style of a wiki, where innovation happens as a matter of course, rather than as a matter of force.

By turning to collaborative mechanisms, Toyota is able to reach deeply into its supplier base to redouble its innovation and accelerate its reaction to crises. It has rapidly developed a widely disseminated, collectively owned pool of common knowledge, which drives innovation at a speed few other corporate systems can match.

As companies like Toyota have found, the scale and complexity of organizations and supply chains have grown beyond the capabilities of typical command-and-control, top-down hierarchies. Collaborative technologies allow companies to find new ways to tap the creative energy within three important stakeholder groups—customers, suppliers, and employees. Companies are discovering that they can achieve more fluid collaboration among disparate groups of people, but only by changing the rules by which their customers, suppliers, and employees interact.

Business educators need to learn and teach what “wiki” may mean to business, not just as a phenomenon, but as a skill.

Bringing It to B-School

As important as it promises to be for business, the wiki phenomenon, by and large, has not yet made it to the business school classroom, either as a topic or a teaching method. As a topic, it has failed to mesh with traditional business school curricula. As a method, it has failed to capture the imagination of business faculty who don’t yet view it as a means to teach innovative thinking. Collaborative creativity, however, promises to become a key business skill in coming years. Business schools that incorporate these atypical, yet leading-edge, business models into their curricula will be at the forefront of a growing trend.

Business schools can offer immense value to their students and faculty by explaining the simple technologies that make collaborative networks possible. Students need to understand how these principles have led to the success of eBay and Wikipedia. They need to analyze why open source and wiki software work and whether they contradict the established principles outlined in conventional cases.

Instead of teaching the unconventional topic of wiki conventionally—by merely studying Wikipedia or other such collaborations—business faculty may want to experiment with the technology themselves. They could post a question as a wiki page, for example, and have the class write their answer collectively. In this way, students can see that their collective answer may be even better and more accurate than what any one of them could have produced on their own.

Today’s business students will not just manage business innovations of the future—in many cases, they will drive them. They must learn the skills of the future, not necessarily the skills of today. Collaborative networks will doubtless be a significant force in the next decade. Business educators need to learn and teach what “wiki” may mean to business, not just as a phenomenon, but as a skill.

Philip Evans is senior vice president of the Boston Consulting Group in Boston, Massachusetts, and the author of Blown to Bits: How the New Economics of Information Transforms Strategy.