Collaboration Nation

Collaboration Nation

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales discusses the contribution his rapidly-expanding empire has made to society

Collaboration seems to be the new buzzword in business. Does it have more substance than a buzzword?

I don't think collaboration is just a buzzword; it really is important. We now have a lot of new tools for collaboration, and that means collaborative efforts - whether large-scale public efforts or internal efforts inside a company - can be more powerful than they used to be. In the past, if you tried to get a large group of people together to write a document, all you could do was e-mail around a Word document, which really is a nightmarish way to collaborate once you get beyond two or three people. Now you can invite participation from a very large group of people. You get more insight and more expertise than you would have been able to in the past with traditional methods.

CIOs need to understand that people are going to use the tool in sometimes unexpected ways, and that's okay

These tools have obviously enabled us to talk in a new and more efficient way. Is that why the business sector has embraced collaboration so quickly?

The need existed, and collaboration actually works. You can get a lot done; but more important you get high-quality work out very quickly. We've seen with corporate adoption of wikis internally that it's tended to be very bottom-up. In other words, the tools "bubble in" and people start installing wikis and using them, rather than it being pushed on them from the top down. That's a sign that something is very useful in a simple kind of way: it just lets them get their work done. As long as collaboration is useful, it's inherently sustainable. We certainly don't ask ourselves how to make e-mail use sustainable.

Are wiki projects actually translating into identifiable outcomes for companies, or are they simply feel-good efforts to give staff a sense that management is listening to them?

I think we can definitely see the effects. For example, Best Buy, which is a very large electronics retailer in the United States, has rolled out a wiki for its employees. It's reported quite a bit of success in getting low-level collaboration on all kinds of things across the enterprise, from people who wouldn't normally be talking to each other. Definitely, workers often don't feel listened to. Sometimes that's just a matter of attitude in the company, but it also can be a matter of technology. How can you listen to people in that situation? Are they really going to compose a memo to top management? I mean, it just doesn't work very well. But now with online tools, it means a much more casual way for people to interact in ways they find useful.

What advice do you have for CIOs on how to use this technology?

CIOs have to understand that this technology is coming. It's a question of ensuring that everyone is on board on the same wiki so you don't have multiple platforms to support. You also need to understand that people are going to use the tool in sometimes unexpected ways, and that's okay.

There's always been the dust-covered suggestion box, but are collaboration tools helping companies to realize that some of the best ideas can, in fact, come from outside the company?

Absolutely, and in many cases where companies are closed to ideas from their customers or from the outside world, they're missing out on huge opportunities. That's one of the big things driving the open, collaborative corporate culture. Intuit, an accounting software maker for small businesses in the United States, has a wiki. The chairman told me that the firm knows that its customers understand how to use their software better than the company's own staff. One of the challenges in business is giving customers what they really need at reasonable cost, without having to do some very expensive interviews and focus grouping. By supporting the community they'll get that information from customers faster than in more traditional methods.

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