Friday, November 18, 2005

Dave Pollard: Wikis: A Tool for a Democratic Revolution in Business?

The best part of my visit to San Jose has been, perhaps not surprisingly, the social networking between the KMWorld & Intranets presentations on social networking. To any conference attendees visiting How to Save the World for the first time: Welcome! Some highlights of the presentations:

Tom Davenport described some research he's done with Rob Cross on the social networks of identified high performers in organizations. Relative to other people in their companies, these high performers:

* Have larger, deeper social networks
* Have more people from outside their organization in their networks
* Are more sought out for advice and information
* Are more aware of who to go to and where to go to get critical information
* Have more new (to the organization) people in their networks
* Invest significantly more time in their networks

Nothing remarkable in this, perhaps, but interesting. Think about the people in your organization or network who you think are most effective -- do they fit this profile? Will social network mapping 'out' the 'leaders' who surround themselves with a small (often sycophantic) cadre of advisors as the ineffective, out of touch, isolated organizational weak links they really are?

Ross Mayfield of Socialtext and Many 2 Many fame had lots to say about wikis, of course, but also made some awesome comments about how social networking disrupts many 'political' aspects of business and society and ushers in Extreme Democracy:

* Wikis can evolve to be more than just collaborative content aggregation tools; they can be platforms for collective knowledge that could replace entire corporate Intranets (Dresdner Bank is already doing this), and also replace e-mail (other than one-to-one messages) and most 'managed' collaboration 'spaces'.
* Wikis are becoming a lot less intimidating with the addition of WYSIWYG entry screens that eliminate the need to learn those unintuitive formatting codes.
* The biggest cultural barrier to wikis is also their greatest potential value and power -- they engender shared trust and shared responsibility by offering participants unrestricted collective ownership of all content; the space and the collective knowledge in it belongs to 'us' (the participants, jointly) not to 'them' (the company).
* Today, over half of the US GDP consists of transaction (clerical, management and administrative) costs -- i.e. 'non-productive' costs that are passed along to the ultimate consumer and which, in a 'perfect' market economy, would be zero; eliminating hierarchical, 'managerial' and paper-shuffling non-value-added work could therefore more than double productivity and halve cost, and in the process would massively shift organizational power and authority to the front lines (and eliminate a ton of expensive, overpaid executive jobs).
* Clay Shirky has said"Process is an embedded reaction to prior stupidity." In a world where every situation is different and everyone knows their own job better than their boss does, process is simply a dysfunctional imposition to try (fruitlessly) to prevent recurrence of a specific human error. A perfect example of this is 90% of the ever-changing and seemingly arbitrary processes in what is laughably called 'airport security' (this week I've discovered that they've decided allowing cell phones turned on within 100 feet of customs booths is a security risk, but on some domestic flights they've stopped asking for picture ID). Clay and Ross assert that wikis and similar 'democratic' social software tools promise the end of process in business. And eliminating the need for process also eliminates the need for most management. It is replaced by collective self-management.
* The value of information is in its currency and movement. "Word and .pdf format is where information goes to die".
* The standard for good social software is: Social, Simple, Open. Not: Powerful, Multi-Featured, Sophisticated, Integrated, or even Secure.
* As the cost of forming a group using social software nears zero, under-represented groups in society and business will start using such software to find, articulate and aggregate their voice, and agitate to rectify their under-representation until that voice is heard.
* What is holding back simple, open, social software from becoming an extremely powerful, democratic social, political and business tool is the digital divide.

Ross agreed with me that the biggest drawback with wikis today is difficulty of navigation. I told Ross that wikis need "a map that shows you where you are". I have a half-formed idea that there is a great opportunity to allow the sections and pages of wikis to be generated and indexed visually by mindmaps. The mindmap could serve as a cognitive representation of the entire landscape of the wiki, so it could be used not only to spontaneously and collectively create the organizational framework of the wiki, but to visualize and navigate that framework as well.

Ross co-presented with Jim Bair, who I also had the chance to talk with at length. Jim described IBM's prediction that we will soon see software that will allow people to more powerfully browse and organize blog content, both of single users and of multiple users as a collective repository. Think of the entire blogosphere as a single large collective knowledge repository that you can reorganize, filter and index according to your own way of looking at that content, or as a giant conversation that you can re-thread in a way that is most coherent and meaningful to you.

I had the pleasure of having dinner with Dave Davison, who has been a consistent champion of my AHA! per project. We shared some interesting ideas about the project that you'll see on these pages soon.

This has been, for me, an outstanding conference. Wish you were here.


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