Friday, May 23, 2008

CPSRENEWAL.CA WEEKLY COLUMN: Public-Wiki-Service? How a Simple Wiki Could Change the Way We Work

When I started my career in public service, I was working in a highly specialized and recently expanded data development and research shop.

While we all were able to maintain our files and keep tabs on our research, it became apparent that we needed a more comprehensive approach to information management. What happened if a subject matter expert wasn’t available when an important action request came in? What happened if they left our group entirely?

I had pitched the idea of using / developing a wiki to my immediate supervisor in order for us to mitigate these exact circumstances. Unfortunately (and somewhat predictably) the idea was dismissed with the quickness that is usually more indicative of a lack of understanding than a lack of interest.

Wiki’s Can Work

Recently, I stumbled upon an e-copy of the book We Think: Why Mass Creativity is the Next Big Thing (pre-publication version) by Charles Leadbeater. The publication discusses open source online collaborative communities and how they can facilitate innovation. The second chapter of Leadbeater's book, entitled Pigs Can Fly explains, among other things, the genesis and success of Wikipedia.

He explains that Wikipedia is a perfect example of orderly activity that is so because no single person seeks to exercise control over the content. Each individual is called up to exercise their own sense of responsibility, adjusting to one another, sorting out disputes as they go -- the order comes from within the community, rather than being imposed in any way:

"Wikipedia resembles a bird's nest lovingly constructed from millions of little pieces of information, each laid delicately together to form a robust, safe structure, which is nevertheless comfortable for its inhabitants. Yet it is a bird's nest that assembles itself, as if the grass and twigs themselves knew exactly where they should go."

Leadbeater goes on to argue that this approach to information management creates a more voluntary distribution of work and allows people to find their own niches more easily. It mixes committed and occasional users effortlessly by providing them a common goal and allowing them to actively contribute or passively take away as much or as little as they see fit.

Innovation is often the result of collaborative efforts and a multiplicity of authors. The example of Wikipedia is interesting because it illustrates the success of a collaborative approach to innovation that is not necessarily motivated by profit. Not to mention that it does all of this at a comparatively low cost. The first four years of Wikipedia were bankrolled on approximately $300,000 – annually, less then the salary of single government executive.

"[Wikipedia] is a self-organizing community that works for non-commercial motives. It should not work, but it does, and because it does we have options for how we work together that we never had before."

Self organizing bird's nest? Non-commercial motives? New options for how we work together?

Web 2.0 presents both challenges and opportunities to government. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case, small discussions become grandiose discussions, and grandiose discussions get bogged down in hypotheticals (usually surrounding potential vulnerabilities or hurdles, a few of which I’ll address later) and everyone leaves frustrated by the infamously inert good idea.

At the Canada School of Public Service's most recent Manion Lecture, Dr. Geoff Mulgan spoke at length about the need for courageous leadership, making room for failure, and trying something small scale more quickly rather than over analyzing and delivering too broadly without knowing the implications.

Taking that into consideration, why not start as small as a single directorate -- call it Directorate Alpha -- within Department X? So let us imagine that Directorate Alpha had decided to experiment in innovation by implementing the workplace wiki, what could it look like?

Its main page would most likely contain a description of the work it performs, a list of its units, an explanation of how each unit fits into the organization, a list of each units team members, past projects, and a list of current projects. Current project pages might include links to background research, a propos discussions between public servants, minutes from relevant meetings, latest versions of policy documents, judicial decisions, upcoming learning events, and anything else that is relevant to the project.

Truth be told we already have a host of formal and informal systems that combine to deliver the same end result – coffee breaks, e-document management databases, email, shared drives, intranet sites, internet sites, networks, etc. Why not provide the space and tools to Directorate Alpha to create a single space for all of this information and see what happens? Public servants should be actively cultivating space, inputting their ideas and linking to their resources, collectively and collaboratively shaping the ‘bird's nest’.

Accurately describing the substantive look and feel of this bird’s nest is a physical impossibility, however, the beneficial effects of going through the process are easily forecasted. Creating the substantive pages of the wiki will do more to build corporate memory, and give employees a sense of what they do and how they fit into the big picture than any dry and quickly-forgotten orientation session ever could. Participation is the lifeblood of any good organization.

Creating and maintaining Directorate Alpha's Wiki will also give the Alphas a means through which they can provide information to other units within their directorate about their activities and how those activities support the broader picture. It could motivate other units to get into the Wiki game. It could breed a positive competition for accuracy of information and level of detail. A wiki could render the euphemism of silos obsolete.

If the Alpha Wiki is successful why not expand the project? Include Directorates Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon? Eventually the entire department is operating on the wiki premise. Start the wiki project in Directorates in other departments. Build momentum slowly. Then start to link these smaller wikis together into a single Wiki for Public Service. The end result would certainly be something more useful then GEDS.

How would this change the way departments interact? What would happen to travel budgets? What would happen to cross cutting files or joint legislation? How many old redundancies would be avoided? How many new efficiencies realized?

Something as simple and low cost as a wiki has the potential to break down traditional workplace barriers to information sharing by placing it all at ones finger tips, not to mention what remote access to the workplace wiki could do for work-life balance (an important emotional driver of employment choice).

The implications of the possible end product are incredible, and it could all start (or fail to start) from a single low cost experiment within a single directorate, within a single department.

Are we foolish not to try?

But What About the Vulnerabilities?

As I alluded to earlier, no discussion on innovation is ever complete without the nay saying and the inevitable frustration of good ideas at the hands of the luddites and the defenders of the status quo. I am sure you have heard their questions (a misnomer really) before.

What about the fact that people might misuse the system? Don't worry it will ultimately sort itself out, not to mention we can track whom is making what entries, this is work you know.

What about document security? We already have e-copies of everything else, why would this be any less secure? We can easily apply security policies in line with our own security clearances, it should only be accessible to public servants via secure connections. Sensitive documents can be password protected, and access to amend certain wiki pages limited to those currently working in that group.

What's wrong with the way we do things now? Maybe nothing, more likely many small but cumulative things. Consider this an opportunity to be innovative and an exercise in preventative maintenance.

However, in all honesty, all of these ‘hurdles’ are well beside the point -- the single largest vulnerability to the idea of the workplace wiki is the fact that it often becomes yet another good but inert idea, another missed opportunity for innovation.

1 comment:

  1. AnonymousMay 28, 2008

    This is a terrific article, thank you for it. I really appreciate this blog and reference it often. I work at NRCan and we use a Wiki, it doesn't have all the functionality such as security capability, but I love it. I am amazed at how quickly I can get a Wiki page up to share information, market a knowledge cafe, get registration, track meetings and task teams. It is a great tool but one that should be considered complimentary to the intranet, not a replacement to it. Again, thank you for these great articles.