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Why Wiki?

November 22, 2006
Related Topics: Technology, Formal Learning, Learning Delivery, Informal Learning, Technology
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“A wiki is a group-editable Web site. Wikis are composed of Web pages you can write on, enabling fast and easy collaboration.” So says Social Text, a company that supplies enterprise wiki software to more than 2,000 organizations, including Nokia and Kodak.

Why should a CLO care about wikis? Because learning is social — people learn through working with one another. Wikis encourage collaboration, and collaboration is the secret sauce of innovation and effectiveness.

Wikis are a new tool in the learning executive’s toolkit. Training departments of yore focused most of their energy on events and processes to push information, much of it prepackaged. Wikis pull people to learn when they feel the need. The information they find largely is created by the users themselves.

Companies are discovering wikis are a way to share knowledge, store the “rules of thumb” of work communities, keep documentation current, cut e-mail bottlenecks and eliminate duplicate effort. They are also lightweight technology. And they’re cheap.

The downside is that wikis are weird. Invented by programmer Ward Cunningham 10 years ago to help coordinate a group of programmers, wikis are often in Courier font, have oddball formatting and are largely unstructured.

Nevertheless, wikis have become attractive. They are still weird the first few times you’re exposed to them, but it’s not really the wiki that is weird; it’s that we are unaccustomed to collaborative work.

I lead online events that explore the application of Web technology to corporate learning. A wiki holds information about assignments, Web technology, informal learning, our blogs, our mail list and more.

Everyone is encouraged to add to the wiki, correct mistakes and document discoveries. That’s fine in principle, but when it comes time to correct one of my sentences, participants shy away. People respect the sanctity of others’ work. They aren’t comfortable changing someone’s sentences, even if it is for the greater good.

Perhaps that is the most important reason for CLOs to understand wikis. Knowledge work is inherently collaborative. Information hoarding is counterproductive. Wikis are a great way to learn to collaborate.

Wikipedia, the poster child of wikis, is a free, online encyclopedia. It contains 5 million articles in more than 200 languages that are created and maintained by an army of volunteers. (Encyclopedia Britannica contains about 100,000 articles.)

Anyone can add an article to Wikipedia. (I’ve done it.) How reliable can this be? It turns out Wikipedia is very accurate, comparing favorably to respected printed encyclopedias. You see, when a new article is submitted to Wikipedia, a team of enthusiasts checks it for accuracy, bias, redundancy and links to other topics. Wikipedia embodies the wisdom of crowds.

Recently I was with a group of friends the night Joe Lieberman lost the primary election in Connecticut. Someone looked up “Lieberman” on Wikipedia. The article told us Lieberman was a senator from Connecticut and the first Jewish American to run for vice president with a major political party. The next paragraph told us, “On Aug. 8, 2006, Lieberman conceded the Democratic primary election to Lamont and announced he would run in the 2006 November election as a candidate on the Connecticut for Lieberman ticket.” Britannica, of course, has no entry for Lieberman, much less the results of an election 60 minutes after they are announced.

Writely (www.writely.com) is a collaborative, online word processor owned by Google, and it’s a great way to get a feel for collaborative writing. Next time you are working on a memo, post it on Writely. Take turns tweaking the words. Don’t worry: The only people who can see it are those you invite.

You’ll discover how much more effective this is than e-mailing drafts of the document back and forth. You’ll pinpoint misunderstandings. And you’ll discover the inherent power in close collaboration.

And by the way, Writely is nothing more than a page-at-a-time wiki.

Jay Cross is CEO of Internet Time Group and a thought leader in informal learning and organizational performance. He can be reached at jcross@clomedia.com.

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