October 11, 2012

Leading Wikipedia

Written by Jennifer Garvey BergerJennifer Garvey Berger

I am just back from an extraordinarily full and interesting trip to the US to serve three very different clients. Two of them are, in their own way, following business models and organisational structures I understand. The third, which I’ll have to name because it’s so unusual, is the one I’d like to talk about a little.

The Wikimedia foundation was founded in in 2003 to support Wikipedia, a web-based encyclopedia that began 2001 and which you’ve probably used in the last week (and I’ve used twice in the last paragraph). Wikipedia is the 6th most popular website in the world with an estimated 365 million readers around the world.  Their business model is unusual in all sorts of ways we should all be thinking about.

First of all, theirs is in some ways a backwards story.  Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger created Wikipedia in 2001, there was no organisation. As Wikipedia grew in importance, WMF was created to support it. There’s a way this almost makes me believe the regular tech organisational narrative—with a group of people who set out to create a top tech product—is itself backwards. This is the most ecological sort of organisation: a website was brought into the world and a village has sprung up to support it.

Second of all, theirs is a totally collaborative story. WMF is a tiny organisation of fewer than 150 people supporting a volunteer base that may be around 100,000. Those volunteers shape the organisation in ways I would have found unimaginable before I heard the stories. Sure I knew that the encyclopedia was created by users, but I didn’t know that this is an open source organisation, and that volunteers write pivotal code (and unilaterally take down parts of WMF websites they find objectionable), defend the rights of Wikipedians throughout the world (especially in countries more hostile to open information), and decide which of the innovations the programmers might do are actually innovations the community wants.

Third, this is not a story driven by money (or, as far as I can tell, status or power or any of the things that drive most organisational stories outside the NGO space). Early on, they made the choice to create the organisation as a foundation, and to use the profits (mostly from their on-line fundraising and some from grants and large donors) to feed their vision (from their website) : “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.”

Finally, theirs is a story that calls for the reinventing of leadership ideas. I am not sure there is any organisation I’ve ever worked with that will push around my own ideas about what an organisation is and what leadership is than this one. In the next months, look for me to be playing around in this complex space.  For example:

  • How do you lead a group of volunteers—nearly all of them virtual and highly opinionated?
  • How do you create a vision and guide others to it when there is no clear forum, there’s almost no way for you to exercise power, and most members of the community (a community of 100,000-3 million) are acting as individuals from their own interest and their ideas about what’s right and wrong?
  • How do you cope with conflict in a world where people are often unguarded in their communication and flame others—sometimes in the more abusive language we see on line rather than the more measured language of real relationships?
  • And how do you create leaders internally who are better able to meet these challenges? (This last question is, of course, the one I lose the most sleep over.)

For all of these questions, the complexity theorists are the ones I find most helpful, because boy is this community a complex adaptive system. And so it’s these ideas I’ll be playing with the most in my blog over the next weeks. Stay tuned and let’s see if we can begin to figure things out together…

4 thoughts on “Leading Wikipedia”

  1. Philippe says:

    Jennifer, I was really thrilled to see this one:
    “How do you create a vision and guide others to it when there is no clear forum, there’s almost no way for you to exercise power, and most members of the community (a community of 100,000-3 million) are acting as individuals from their own interest and their ideas about what’s right and wrong?”

    As you know, that’s the one that keeps ME awake at night. Can’t wait to see where you come out on it.

    ~pb

  2. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

    I have to say, Philippe, I’ve been losing sleep over that question too! I was all over the site today, just wandering around and looking at all the ways the community interacts and communicates. I learned what a sockpuppet was too! 🙂

    We are going to learn so much and have so much fun together!
    -j

  3. Heather Simington says:

    I just say ‘WOW Jennifer”. Will be following this with interest.
    Best Wishes,
    Heather

  4. Anne H says:

    Thanks Jennifer for your SHARING. It will be a fascinating partnering with such an ‘organisation’. Will very much look forward to hearing more, nourishing the broader discussion of such fundamentals as to what is an ‘organisation’ – especially when ‘structure’ is well out of the equation; ‘leadership’ and associated roles.

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