What Wikipedia Can Teach Businesses About Collaborative Authoring

Sep 7, 2010

"Wikipedia is probably the world's biggest and most successful collaborative writing project. The free, web-based, multilingual encyclopedia offers site visitors millions of articles written by volunteers around the world. ... For many businesses, collaborative writing is almost synonymous with "pain" and practically the definition of "necessary evil." ... What is Wikipedia's lesson for corporations about how to make collaboration work? For most corporations, the lesson is not that using a wiki is the solution to collaboration problems.

Wikipedia is a massive information set. Yet it is easy for readers to navigate, and easy for writers to expand on, in part because the entire site follows a set of structural rules. Structural rules define how the site is divided into articles, and conventions for use of disambiguation pages, categories and templates. A little-known aspect of Wikipedia is that behind the scenes, volunteers put a great deal of thought and day-to-day work into establishing and communicating this model, in addition to the work of actually writing articles. The highly structured nature of Wikipedia lends itself well to chunking. The ability of thousands of users to simultaneously contribute to Wikipedia depends on it being divided into fairly short articles, each further divided into sections. Each article, and each section, can be edited independently of all others. ... Businesses tend to work under the assumption that one long document = one massive file. And a common source of frustration in collaborative writing projects is not being able to work on a document because someone else "has it." At Wikipedia, an editor working on one article would never have a file-lock conflict with someone who is working on a different article, and editors can even work on different sections of an article at the same time.

Wikipedia has managed to make 16 million articles all look the same, a feat that many corporations would struggle to achieve with two articles. The principle at work at Wikipedia is called separation ofcontent from formatting: Writers say at an abstract level what the different parts of a document are, and the actual formatting is defined in a separate file called a stylesheet.

Use Version-Management Technology: The Wikipedia database stores all previous versions of all articles, which for some articles is thousands of versions. A complete revision history allows you to see who has made what changes, and if needed you can roll back to an earlier version."