• 23 Jul 2007
  • Research & Ideas

HBS Cases: How Wikipedia Works (or Doesn’t)

For HBS professor Andrew McAfee, Wikipedia is a surprisingly high-quality product. But when his concept of "Enterprise 2.0" turned up on the online encyclopedia one day—and was recommended for deletion—McAfee and colleague Karim R. Lakhani knew they had the makings of an insightful case study on collaboration and governance in the digital world. Key concepts include:
  • Despite thousands of participants, Wikipedia operates under a very ornate and well-defined structure of participation that enables them to produce a highly regarded online encyclopedia.
  • A group of people in the Wikipedia world characterized as "exclusionists" could dampen user enthusiasm by increasing barriers to acceptance of Wikipedia articles.
  • Knowledge-sharing technologies such as wikis are coming into increasing use in the corporate world, but companies must understand that a top-down approach to administering them will lead to certain extinction.
by Sean Silverthorne

HBS professor Andy McAfee had his doubts about Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia created and maintained by volunteers. "I just didn't think it could yield a good outcome or a good encyclopedia. But I started consulting it and reading the entries, and I said, 'This is amazing.' "

So when the concept of "Enterprise 2.0"—a term coined by McAfee on the general idea of how Web 2.0 technologies can be used in business—popped up on Wikipedia, McAfee beamed. "I was bizarrely proud when my work rose to the level of inclusion in Wikipedia." Then, however, a turn of fortune took place. A "Wikipedian" nominated the article for deletion as unworthy of the encyclopedia's standards. McAfee thought, "It's not even good enough to get on Wikipedia?"

He left the sidelines to join the online discussion about whether the article should be kept or jettisoned. It was also that moment that would eventually lead to an HBS case study, written with professor Karim R. Lakhani, on how Wikipedia governs itself and faces controversial challenges.

The elbows are sharp on Wikipedia. It's not cuddly.
—Andy McAfee

The case offers students a chance to understand issues such as how online cultures are made and maintained, the power of self-policing organizations, the question of whether the service is drifting from its core principles, and whether a Wikipedia-like concept can work in a business setting. (See related story below.)

The Wisdom Of Crowds

Even by online phenomenon standards, Wikipedia is huge. Begun in 1999 by Jimmy Wales under the name Nupedia, the service today claims 1.8 million articles in English, 4.8 million registered users, and 1,200 volunteers who regularly edit Wikipedia articles.

Anyone can submit or edit an article, which is why Wikipedia has been lampooned for high-profile inaccuracies, such as a biography of journalist John Seigenthaler Sr., who, according to the anonymous contributor, "was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby." Not so. A recent article in The Onion parodied, "Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years of American Independence."

But Wikipedia also employs a series of consensus driven vetting processes that strive to ensure the information is accurate, is verifiable, is built on solid sources, and excludes personal opinion. Just as anyone can submit an article, anyone can also start an "Article for Deletion" (AfD) review process if they believe the piece does not live up to those standards. After online debate about the worthiness of the piece, a Wikipedia administrator reviews the arguments and decides the fate of the article.

The tension that they need to deal with is how to keep it as porous as possible.
—Karim R. Lakhani

The result has been a product that even academics regularly consult. In late 2005, the scientific journal Nature conducted a study comparing 42 science articles in Wikipedia with the online version of Encyclopaedia Britannica. The survey revealed that Encyclopaedia Britannica had 123 errors while Wikipedia had 162 (for averages of 2.9 and 3.9 errors per article, respectively.) For the editors at Britannica, that may be a little too close for comfort.

It's the kind of success that attracted McAfee, whose research centers on the use of technology in business, and Lakhani, an expert on distributed innovation.

"We had these completely overlapping interests, and we were kicking around the idea of how we were going to write a case on Wikipedia, what research could we do: What's the right way in on this phenomenon?" McAfee recalls. "And we just got very lucky with timing, in that this article appeared about my Enterprise 2.0 concept."

Into The Thicket

In May 2006, someone unknown to McAfee, but who had read his seminal article "Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration" in the MIT Sloan Management Review, posted a 34-word Wikipedia "stub"—essentially a brief starting point for others to build on the concept. McAfee's article detailed how so-called Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis, and group messaging, employed in a business setting, could encourage more spontaneous, knowledge-based collaboration.

Shortly after the posting, however, Wikipedia user "Artw" recommended the article for deletion, characterizing the entry as "Neologism of dubious utility." An administrator eventually deleted the work, but Enterprise 2.0 was resurrected as a lengthier piece. An AfD was again tagged on the article. The debate was on.

"So we got to watch the governance process up close and personal on a topic that I cared a lot about," recalls McAfee. "I participated in the Article for Deletion process, and got to understand how Wikipedia works as a Wikipedian. At the end of all that we said, 'Well, regardless of what else we do at Wikipedia, we've got a really, really good teaching case right here.' "

Why Wikipedia Works

From the outside, Wikipedia may look like chaos barely contained. "When people look at these sorts of phenomenon at Wikipedia, they misread the anarchy," Lakhani says. "All these people, thousands of people, there must be no rules! But there is a very ornate and well-defined structure of participation. One of our big learnings was to actually dive into the structure: What is the structure that enables these guys to produce this great resource?"

One element instilled by founder Wales is an ethic of self-governance and treating others with respect. In many online communities, personal insults fly freely, often fueled by youth and anonymity. Wikipedians, however, do not cotton to personal attacks. "The elbows are sharp on Wikipedia. It's not cuddly. But at the same time, I'm not entitled to call someone a bleep," says McAfee.

Another reason the governance structure works, adds Lakhani, is that it is transparent—everyone's edits can be read and commented upon by anyone else.

But the real basis of Wikipedia governance is a collection of policies and guidelines developed over the years that defines everything from article evaluation standards to the etiquette surrounding debate.

"When I got involved in this Article-for-Deletion process, they kept citing chapter and verse the policies and guidelines to me," McAfee says. "It really showed me how much Wikipedians rely on these—they really are the foundations that Wikipedia uses.

"So you've got a very clear set of criteria for telling your fellow Wikipedians, 'Here's my contribution, here's why it's valid and needs to be included,' " McAfee continues. "Now, you can argue about the wordsmithing and the structure of the article, but as far as the core question of what goes into an article, they've got that largely nailed."

Or was it Enterprise 2.0 that was getting nailed by the rules?

The Endgame

McAfee thought the Enterprise 2.0 article did, in fact, live up to those standards. So why was it being considered for deletion? As the arguments dragged on, McAfee began to feel that the debate might be about something more than just the article.

"It seemed to me that some of the people arguing against it were entrenched, and they were using Wikipedia's policies as doors, as barriers, without being willing to engage in a real debate about them. So the policies had become for them a way to keep out articles they just personally didn't like."

And although Lakhani believes part of the entrenchment was because a Harvard professor was in the middle of the fray—"I think what happened was that people took even firmer stances"—Lakhani agrees that rules seemed to be used in an exclusionary way. "Now the question is, is what we saw just a tempest in a teapot, or does it tell us something interesting? I think it does tell us something interesting."

An ongoing tension within Wikipedia is characterized as the inclusionists versus the exclusionists. The inclusionists argue that one of Wikipedia's core values is that it should be open to all ideas, that truth emerges from a variety of directions. Better to include than exclude. The exclusionists see Wikipedia's utilitarianism diminished if too much froth clouds the valuable information inside.

"There is always a tendency in communities or in any social organization to have this boundary and say in or out," Lakhani says. "This might be happening in isolated places inside Wikipedia. The tension that they need to deal with is how to keep it as porous as possible."

Porous is good, says Lakhani, because most content on Wikipedia appears to originate at the fringes of the community from anonymous or infrequent contributors. (A central core of about 1,200 volunteers refines the pieces over time and generally tends the Wikipedia garden.) If exclusionists began to make it more difficult for outside contributions to populate Wikipedia, the product's secret sauce could be spoiled.

"That kind of ossification, if that happened, could be really dangerous," says McAfee. "But my feeling is this existential debate about the inclusionist versus the deletionist is not going to cripple Wikipedia. What's lost there, though, is that some people who have a lot of energy to bring—and I'm one of them—get turned off by these deletionists trying to slam doors in our faces."

But in its 8-year life in several forms, Wikipedia has shown institutionally that it is open to evolution of the rules. "They continuously keep tweaking the rules as they encounter new situations," Lakhani says.

Win Some, Lose Some

In the end a Wikipedia administrator, serving as judge, reviewed the 17 pages of debate about deletion and decided Enterprise 2.0 should stay in. Victory was short lived.

"After that," McAfee says, "one of the people on the other side of the debate took it upon himself to truncate the article greatly and change the title of it. And I left him a message. I wrote, "Hey, did you not see that the result was 'Keep'?" And he replied, 'Look, Wikipedia is this very freeform environment. This is what I feel like doing. If you don't like it, feel free to change it.' Which left me a little unsatisfied, I have to say."