Jimmy Wales and Enterprise Wikis

At the Summer Davos in Dalian, China, I was able to speak to Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, about wikis in the enterprise. Wikipedia has become not only the world’s most popular wiki, but the ninth most popular web site in the world.
Written by John Newton, Contributor

At the Summer Davos in Dalian, China, I was able to speak to Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, about wikis in the enterprise. Wikipedia has become not only the world’s most popular wiki, but the ninth most popular web site in the world. Jimmy is here as a Young Global Leader with others that are defining where the world is going in the future.

Although wikis have become popular for people to collaborate on alternatives to encyclopedias, wikis can be used as tools to collaborate in the enterprise. Wikis are now being used to define product specifications, user documentation, policies and procedures. In addition, teams are using wikis to share ideas, discuss issues and define strategy. MediaWiki is the engine beneath Wikipedia and thus developed by the Wikipedia Foundation. It is available for anyone to use in their enterprise since it open source, so, I figured that Jimmy was a good person to ask about wikis in the enterprise.

Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia

John Newton: I have been interested in wikis in the enterprise for a while. Do you have any general comments on how they can be used?

Jimmy Wales: Wikis have been used to collaborate on all sorts of documents. They have even been used to manage schedules. I have seen people abandon [Microsoft] Outlook and schedule in a wiki as a better alternative.

The big difference is a design change in process. People don’t necessarily want to use a CMS. You need to drop the a priori assumptions on how you do workflow. The old notions of workflow are too cumbersome. Wikis provide enormous flexibility in how users can work together.

JN: Is this a replacement for workflow or a new way to do workflow?

JW: It’s more an ad hoc workflow by the users. In a wiki, users decide who can contribute to the group and create their own ad hoc workflows. It is a completely different security model. With the old model, you can define that a certain group can edit some content and define who owns the content.

With wikis, it is a completely different model that is more open. The implications of this are that you have accountability versus a gate keeper. Who is allowed to do what is socially enforced.

For instance, you can have an HR policy that says that John can update the HR policy, but the company policy is that regular workers can’t update that policy. But if you can have employees fix spelling errors or explain obscure paragraphs, then it would make that policy better. But that doesn’t reflect current policy, even though what is important is who does what to that policy and what matters is who is accountable.

[We didn’t discuss this, but a wiki allows anyone to revert changes back to their original state, so any malicious damage can be undone. Likewise an administrator of a page can prevent individuals from updating the page or anything on a site. That is the source of accountability.]

JN: How many organizations or enterprises are using MediaWiki in the enterprise?

JW: I have no idea. I have no clue on the quantity or number of systems used in the enterprise. We don’t track stuff like that.

But MediaWiki has its strengths and weaknesses in the enterprise. Its strengths are that it is the same software that runs the 9th largest website on the internet and can be used by anyone. I have a copy of MediaWiki on my laptop and it is the same software, except for all the caching stuff. It is highly scalable. You know that it can go from department to enterprise-wide to internet.

Its disadvantages are that it doesn’t integrate with corporate logins. There is no Outlook integration. I don’t really care about that stuff.

[At this point, Mozilla COO John Lilly, who happened to be sitting at the same table, interjected. “Yeah, no open source software does. But we use MediaWiki a lot. We have tons of documentation in it.”]

JW: I saw an implementation [of an enterprise wiki] at Best Buy. I was invited to Best Buy on the day they launched their wiki. They were using FlexWiki from Microsoft. That has got to be the worst wiki on the planet. It’s open source, but it was awful.

JN: Then why did they use it?

JW: The classic reason. Microsoft asked them to use it. It integrated with Microsoft logins, accounting and stuff like that. I haven’t followed FlexWiki since then, but I haven’t heard anything about it either.

JN: I believe that Microsoft’s wiki strategy now is to use SharePoint as the platform, for a lack of a better term, for collaboration. I have seen a number of situations where enterprises are comparing wikis and SharePoint. Are you seeing [your new company] Wikia positioned against SharePoint?

JW: Wikia is really focused on large, public-facing web sites. We don’t really have the consulting available to make it work in the enterprise. I have never run into SharePoint. I have never seen it. In fact, I don’t really know anything about SharePoint, only anecdotes.

JN: Most people reading this have probably never heard of Wikia, can you define it briefly?

JW: Wikipedia is about building out the reference library. Wikia is about building out everything else like magazines, novels, books. It is not neutral [like Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View requirement]. It has humor, fun, it’s political.  It’s every publication you would want to build.

It’s also about Search. Most important is that it is open source and open algorithms. We use [Apache projects] Lucene and Nutch. Search so far has been about good enough search and good quality search has become a commodity. There is still an opportunity to build around brand and distribution.

JN: Aren’t you worried that would dilute the Wikia brand by addressing both the wiki and search markets?

JW: Not really, because my personal brand is about mass participation, open source, transparency and editorial content.

JN: I have heard Twiki being used in enterprises as much as MediaWiki. Any idea which is being used more often?

JW: I don’t know Twiki that well. I am really more familiar with the mass market, consumer market. I would think that MediaWiki is used more often.

[John Lilly interjects: “No, I think that Twiki is being used more often.”]

JN: All this MediaWiki stuff, Facebook, YouTube is being lumped into the same bucket as part of Web 2.0. Do you think they are related?

JW: Yeah, it is over-hyped. I think it is about social networking and social connections.

JN: I have theory that Web 2.0 is about the right brain - creativity, faces, connections, music, and artistic expression. What do you think?

JW: Maybe so. Maybe so.

JN: What about data? Dan Bricklin’s WikiCalc is about managing data and spread sheets? What do think about WikiCalc? Do you think there is any applicability to Wikipedia?

JW: I love the concept and there is a really cool guy working on it. It’s a great way to extend collaboration the same way that Google Docs is. I am on the board of SocialText that is backing WikiCalc.

JN: The other day in one of the [Dalian] sessions, you talked about the fact that users put data into tables even though you provided mechanisms [categories] to avoid that. Do you think that shows that people want managing this type of tabular information in a wiki?

JW: Yeah. Tables have been useful.

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