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Wikis--a disruptive innovation

This article appears in the issue June 2006, [Vol 15, Issue 6]


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Innovation is ranked a top priority by global CEOs. Yet, few CEOs manage innovation by linking strategy to structure. Currently, most CEOs focus on sustaining innovation practices vs. disruptive practices.

Disruptive innovation, framed by author Clayton Christensen, is where products or systems create new markets. Disruptive innovation patterns are difficult to see because they are complex and diffuse more rapidly.

One of the most promising and rapidly emerging disruptive innovations in knowledge management is the wiki. According to Wikipedia  "the free wiki encyclopedia that anyone can edit"), a wiki is a "type of Web site that allows anyone visiting the site to add, remove or otherwise edit all content, very quickly and easily, and sometimes without the need for registration." Ward Cunningham, a software architect, invented the original wiki to help people contribute into existing documents.

Web 2.0 (which generally refers to the second generation of services available on the World Wide Web) is centered on an "architecture of participation." Rather than IT professionals dictating the structures that users fill in, wikis enable users to control the navigation and content evolution. Many Web 2.0 tools do 80 percent of what companies paid millions for in the 90s, and many of them are free to use.

"Wikis provide a means for a disconnected group to develop a coherent online culture", says Martin Cleaver, early wiki pioneer who introduced wikis to Redbourn, England, in 2001, a site that has received recognition for its innovative collaborative capabilities.

Wiki software products with inroads into the corporate market include: Atlassian's Confluence, JotSpot, Socialtext and the open source TWiki. Each solution is delivering on particular functionality including: user extensibility, database functionality and support for real-time interactivity.

In 2004, Gartner predicted that "a third of mainstream collaboration software products will support wiki-style interaction by 2006." That is evidenced in Microsoft's fall release of Sharepoint touted to include wiki functionality. Also, SAP's recent investment in Socialtext provides a clear indication of portal integration opportunities with wiki collaboration solutions. We will see further investment across this market as it matures.

Engineering firms were among the first to catch on to the benefits of wikis, using them for product design, standards and project management. Yahoo and Google have extensive deployments of TWiki internally.

A sign that a solution is becoming pervasive is when the banks are catching on. Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein was an early adopter in the sector utilizing Socialtext's wiki for a variety of tasks. Citigroup picked up on the trend in 2004 and formally deployed Atlassian's Confluence in October 2005. Citigroup is typical; like DrKW, it started from the need to rapidly deploy internal customer-facing material. Gone is the long publishing cycle to check static content: Customers or employees can directly change content in real time.

The Bank of America uses the Confluence wiki to support its investment banking practices. "The ability to store information in context--to weave a narrative through data sources, attachments, charts, archived mails and other data--is what makes wikis a powerful knowledge management tool," says Michael Ogrinz, software architect at Bank of America. "Traditional document management software works like a giant filing cabinet where it's hard to tell what information is important."

Anne Lotz, executive director of West Toronto Support Services, is a leader in bringing third-generation collaboration techniques to Canada's healthcare. "Wikis are so much better than just relying on search," she says, "because people can build out prose that spells out the context between related content. Wikis provide alternative and fast pathways to get at expertise and use community intelligence to bring new ideas to the forefront."

Other smart wiki applications include Glaxo Smith Kline Confluence wiki for experts to share advice during clinical trials. Users build a structured hierarchy of advice and search the advice for useful information relevant to their own trials. The objective is to eliminate some of the pitfalls that can cause delays in clinical trials by allowing people to share experiences and advice across geographies and time zones.

What is clear is organizations continue to spend millions of dollars on content management infrastructure solutions, rather than putting more power in the hands of their users to collaborate effectively together. The wiki paradigm is disruptive because it is a low-cost alternative that brings key editing features into the hands of users. The approach increases the collaborative productivity of an organization or its extended ecosystems.

Overall, wikis increase the socialization process, enabling collaboration to generate at warp speed. Socialization underpins the sharing of ideas, and hence innovation capacity increases from wiki infrastructure.

To date, wikis have largely been a grassroots phenomenon. Few senior executives have used a wiki or are embracing collaboration patterns at the speed required for competitive advantage. Compared with new firms embracing the architecture of participation, that puts them at a disadvantage.

A recent IBM international survey of 765 CEOS confirmed that CEOs will say they are for collaboration and for radically shaking up their business models to increase their innovation speed. However, when asked how their organizations are collaborating in different markets, the results in their ability to collaborate effectively were: in emerging markets, 73 percent; in global markets, 51 percent; and in mature markets, only 47 percent.

Wikis can help provide a management practice to help increase the capability of mature markets to innovate more successfully as wikis provide the space to incubate ideas. In addition, wikis are an excellent starting place from which to create social networks--seeding future opportunities for learning and growth.

Wikis are a disruptive innovation and provide a capability that knowledge practitioners have hungered for years to achieve. Finally, we are getting our toolkits right and we need to spread the word about the power of wikis. This disruptive innovation wave should not go unnoticed.


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