Subba’s Serendipitous moments

September 1, 2009

Wikipedia wrestles with a growth and direction dilemma

Wikipedia has been an unqualified success of this decade. It is just not the product but the way they have created it. They spawned a new ideology, a new culture. In fact several enterprises have started to develop their content management and even the knowledge management practices around a wiki model.

However Wikipedia itself faces a deep dilemma about its growth and direction.

It started off as an encyclopedia from voluntary contributors and complete freedom to improve the content. Now, in its latest announcement it will impose an editorial review on articles. So, now the notion that everyone can change the entries is no longer true. In my view this is inevitable. A great ability to influence has to be accompanied by an equal amount of responsibility.

Currently they are doing a review about their culture and growth direction. I am particularly pleased that they are doing that because one of their commitments was to give a free encyclopedia to the world in possibly every language. They clearly seem to have lost sight of that.

The interesting thing is that Jimmy Wales — the man who created this movement and now an iconic figure is most critical about the direction itself.

Unlike corporations, Wikipedia is run by a Foundation which means that they have followers wedded to a particular cause. Changing the growth trajectory is not simply a matter of a CEO or the Board making a decision, but they would need to carry the thousands of volunteers with them — no easy task.

This would be an interesting organizational change to watch and learn from.



  1. In my opinion Wikipedia has started to show cracks a couple of years ago. I was an active contributor (started 50 something articles of which some have gone big) once upon a time, but eventually I was tired of interacting with some really arrogant, self-opinionated people. The constant bickering that happened with the edits in the backstage, and the need for more politics & diplomacy has turned back on a lot of small editors. For somebody who doesn’t have the whole day to waste and wants to contribute quickly and efficiently, things were getting harder and harder.

    There were many self-styled Ayatollahs who looked upon casual editors like how the Pharaohs used to look upon their slaves. Their snobbery and merciless editing without discussion left distaste. A lot of times dealing with 15 year olds was a pain and there was an instance where one crazy teenager was creating portals and hundreds of articles of a completely unknown religous cult in Southern India. Reading Wikipedia talk about that cult in hundreds of articles could convince a casual observer that it was a religion followed by 1 billion people. He created various accounts and was sock puppeteering.

    For Wikipedia’s sake they need to go on a more organized route and allow more real experts with open minds in their higher level committees. There needs to real life checks to ensure one person gets only one vote and the identities of the top level editors are well known. Otherwise Wikipedia will soon degenerate like Somalia.

    I don’t believe in Anarchy. A model of complete openness like Wikipedia would either degenerate into Warlord culture unless somebody brings traditional forms of governance to it.

    Comment by Balaji Viswanathan — September 1, 2009 @ 11:19 am | Reply

  2. Obviously a ‘renewal’ of this magnitude will take more than just one mind, so let me throw my 2 cents into the ring. But caution: I write/think/speak about changing sysems, through values, by getting buy-in at the values/criteria level. If you’re not seeking that sort of change, my comments won’t help.

    Before any change, the organization must buy-in at every level, otherwise you’ll have fall-out, sabotage, etc. IMHO (and the way I work with my clients around change and implementing change at a corporate level) first the entire organization needs to begin to design/consider the criteria to be used for the change. Then they go through different iterations (we can speak about this if you like) of buy-in, creativity, group facilitation, etc. and it becomes a viral and endemic process, from the inside out.

    If it’s top down, you’ll be missing a major opportunity to get the worker bees involved in great creativity. After all, they are on the front lines daily, and must have a loud voice in any change that happens as they must manage it, and carry it forth responsibly. Not to mention that these folks deserve the opportunity to create what they know is possible.

    I can let you know what I believe are the phases that create leaders, garner buy-in from each faction, get them all working, deciding, creating, together so everyone is a leader and actively involved – and with a stake in – the change.

    We can speak if you wish – sdm@austin.rr.

    Comment by Sharon Drew Morgen — September 2, 2009 @ 9:07 am | Reply

    • Thanks Sharon for your valuable comment. Changing systems through values is what I believe in as well, so we have a common premise here. The approach that you have outlined is a standard typical well proven approach to managing organizations through change when there are workers/employees. How would you manage the change when you run an organization which exists primarily because of volunteers across the world and who are contributing their time and expertise and moreover are not paid. They thrive on a sense of creation and contribution for a cause. They are idealistic and span multiple cultures, countries, motivations. Well, Wikipedia foundation is going to put some of the changes to vote, but one also expects that some of the better suggestions may be voted out and invariably there will be a regression to the mean.

      I remember a similar crisis that the Linux world went through a few years back. Finally Linus torvald — the spirit behind the open source movement, put his foot down on a few things, (he is known to be autocratic, opinionated, stubborn in some circles) and slowly the world reached some equilibrium after the turmoil.

      My contention is that the change process is getting more trickier and the classical change model (your model and its variations) are increasingly becoming less effective under the new world that we live in. The change in Facebook’s policies were exercised more by Facebook subscribers which even turned down Mark’s suggestions. If the change model that you suggested were to be deployed in the financial world that we lived in many of the financial institutions would have simply collapsed. President Obama may never be able to get the health care policies back on track with the buy in process for all the constituents. Inside out change has been attempted and management literature records more failures than success or it just takes longer. There’s nothing like an external threat looming right on your head that forces people to rally and change.

      Organizational change gets fascinating because change models have to be dynamic to suit the context of the change, the trajectory/pace of change and also the factors that stand for status quo.

      Wikipedia becomes an interesting case because of its iconic founder, a new organizational model, the organization’s current stress points and the uncertainty of the future of the organization. In my understanding there are not many precedents or cases that can help here.

      Finally would you suggest that your change model would work for all kinds of organizations — government, military, intelligence organizations, mafia organizations, religious organizations and so on..? They all have values, everyone claims that they do..!

      I am happy to speak and compare views if you wish. Let me know how.

      Thanks again.

      Comment by Subbaraman Iyer — September 2, 2009 @ 8:50 pm | Reply

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