Jimmy Wales used the simple database software known as a wiki to launch a kind of open-source knowledge project called Wikipedia in early 2001.
Today, thousands of people around the world contribute to the free, collaborative encyclopedia, which has become a staple of Web-based research.
Wales, a former options trader, says wikis—which are written in plain language and accessible through any Web browser—can foster collaboration and knowledge-sharing in a corporate environment, too. Senior Writer Edward Cone caught up with Wales to find out more.
What makes these simple databases different from other collaborative technologies?
Wikis are really a social innovation, not a technological one. What gets turned upside down is the model of permissions and security you find with traditional knowledge management systems.
Those systems are designed with all sorts of complexities as to who can do what and when and why. The wiki leaves everything completely open-ended for the users to determine. People dont have to get permission to do something useful.
Think how often you see, say, a corporate document with some kind of broken sentence in it—a misspelled word, a hanging sentence, something anyone could fix but isnt allowed to. With a wiki, they just edit and save it.
Doesnt that kind of openness worry corporate managers who are used to control?
It does at first. I was consulting at the BBC and they said, "We cant have just anyone edit policy documents." I said, "Why not? We let anyone in the general public edit Wikipedia. And those are just volunteers, but you have control over these peoples paychecks."
A lot of the troubles with wikis should vanish when you get them inside a company. You dont expect people to vandalize the wiki any more than they would vandalize the Coke machine. If you anticipate problems with employees maliciously changing documents, youve got much worse problems.