October 2, 2008

How Wikis Mess With Your Mind

This seems to be my week for web 2.0 experiments: first Twitter and now Wikis. You can read about my first forays into Twitter elsewhere, but here I'd like to talk about one of the most interesting things I'm learning about wikis: namely, how they work with (or mess with) your mind.

Until now, most Wiki converts/addicts have talked up the collaboration benefits of wikis. It's a beautiful thing -- everyone sharing and caring towards building a common resource. However, there seems to me to be a slightly less rosy view of wikis that might potentially be more powerful in terms of productivity. What I'm talking about is the awful weight of transparency and the impact that has on human accountability.

If the wiki is used to collect the musings and contributions of a community of practice, you expect that folks will participate only to the extent the spirit moves them. Because of wiki transparency, you know who is contributing and who isn't, but that transparency doesn't in and of itself compel participation. Delays in editing can always be ascribed to work/home/bailout pressures and distractions. This kind of wiki will grow in the hands of enthusiasts, but probably won't reflect the views of all of the community since so many of them will form a "silent majority," lurking on the sidelines.

There's another way in which the transparency of a wiki becomes a powerful tool for productivity. But this works best for a project that isn't purely voluntary and where the participants are aware of the real consequences of failing to deliver the project on time. Here's an example: what if you and your boss set up a wiki to draft a report and then agreed on milestones for moving sections of the report along towards completion. Sure you could leave it until the last minute, but every time the boss came to edit her section of the report, she'd know that you hadn't done your share. Knowing that, how long would you be willing to procrastinate? Knowing that she could see exactly what value you were adding every day, how long would you be willing to make only superficial changes?

Now imagine using a wiki to write a book? Or a legal brief. Or a strategic plan? Or a merger agreement. Or a Bailout plan?

Granted, in a document management system you can check the history of a document to see who edited it and when. However, you won't know exactly what they've done and won't be able to begin to assess their contribution until you've compared the latest version of the document with the prior version. Now how often do we do that with respect to the work of colleagues?

By contrast, the wiki provides a running commentary on who did what when. It also allows collaborators to pick up seamlessly where their colleagues left off. All without a complicated e-mail explaining the status of things. From a knowledge management perspective, this is all good.

For those of you who are self-starters, a wiki simply brings into the spotlight all your good work habits. And, you will shine. For those tending more towards distraction, multi-tasking and procrastination, this kind of transparency is either going to make or break you. Regardless, it will change you. Knowing that, you can begin to understand how wikis can mess with your mind.

[For lots of great information on using wikis productively, see Stewart Mader's terrific Grow Your Wiki.]

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