Wikipedia was set up 17 years ago as an experiment in collaborative knowledge-building. It’s now the world’s fifth most visited website – and the first place most people turn for information about anything.
What’s interesting about Wikipedia is that it subverts the previous norm. Instead of being curated by experts, it depends entirely on volunteers to submit and update its content.
Detractors have claimed that this makes Wikipedia unreliable. How can you trust the accuracy of information, they argue, if you don’t know the authority of the source?
They’ve got a point: there have been well-documented examples of howling errors, as well as allegations of entries being manipulated by interested parties (including the CIA and political lobbyists).
On the other hand, Wikipedia includes over 48 million separate detailed entries, written in 293 languages. In almost every case, those entries were written – and moderated – by people with a far greater knowledge of their subject than could ever be possible with traditional reference sources, such as Encyclopedia Britannica or Larousse.
No matter how good your paid researchers might be, it’s simply not economically viable to have enough of them, with diverse enough backgrounds, to be able to know that much about that much.
Wikipedia is a trade-off: you lose a bit of certainty, but you gain a massive increase in depth, variety and richness of content.
It’s the same trade-off most big businesses struggle with every day.
On the one hand, they want to ‘empower’ their employees. They know that, in many cases, those employees have a much more direct connection with customers than the people at the top of the business. They want them to use their initiative to be more agile – and their personality to inject warmth and humanity into their daily work.
They know that, if they can do that, their customers will have a much better experience and their business will be more successful.
But, on the other hand, most businesses are terrified of giving up control. They’re scared that, given too much real autonomy, their employees will make bad decisions that damage their reputation or lose them money.
And they’re right. If you give your employees a genuinely free hand, in some cases they will make bad decisions.
But, if you don’t open yourself up to that possibility, you’ll never be able to harness the incredible creative and human benefits that real empowerment can bring to your business.