The Wikipedia Manual of Style: A Study in Governance

Governance is a fantastic idea. In fact, it is absolutely critical to the continued success of an application. There are times that governance, to me, seems to be a great idea on paper, but in practice it’s very difficult to implement. I was talking to someone the other day on the topic of governance, and I used the example of Wikipedia as a successful governance plan and execution. I thought it would be worthwhile to dig deeper into the topic as a great example to look to.

Of all places Wikipedia has a great outline of governance goals as applied to the IT arena.

The primary goals for information technology governance are to (1) assure that the investments in IT generate business value, and (2) mitigate the risks that are associated with IT. This can be done by implementing an organizational structure with well-defined roles for the responsibility of information, business processes, applications, infrastructure, etc.

The more and more I do true implementations of IT whether it be SharePoint, WordPress, or any similar technology is the role of governance. Items from controlled vocabularies to usage policies are essential the sustainability of an IT initiative especially in terms of ensuring that IT investments generate true business value. A lack of governance is always a primary reason why IT projects fail.

The Wikipedia Manual of Style

Wikipedia has an extensive governance model outlined in their Manual of Style. Everything from abbreviations, punctuation, etc is included in this one of many operating documents for Wikipedia.  It is clear not only reading this document that it has been carefully thought out, but the power of their guidelines comes from adherence to the document.

In a policy and guidelines document it is noted on who is responsible for enforcing these policies.

You are a Wikipedia editor. Since Wikipedia has no editor-in-chief or top-down article approval mechanism, active participants make copyedits and corrections to the format and content problems they see. So the participants are both writers and editors.

Books such as Wikinomics probe how such a mass scale collaborative project doesn’t turn itself upside down, and it’s truly a site to behold.  It becomes apparent that Wikipedia editors tend to enjoy adhering to the governance model, because they understand it is crucial to the long-term sustainability of the project. The editor therefore become stakeholders in there edits, and they understand that if they want their work to not be lost is an adherence to the governance documents.

That is of course not the whole story behind Wikipedia. The Wikimedia foundation does have a small army of administrator that constanty patrol the recent changes list, and ensure that the governance model is actually being utilized.  So actually ensuring that certain individuals are empowered to a special degree of administrative rights also becomes a crucial factor in its success.

Applying a Best Practice in Your Organization

Let’s face it, none of will ever be doing something as wide-scale as Wikipedia (although never say never), and so the question becomes how can we apply the best practice from Wikipedia governance to our individual IT endeavors? Thinking through this I came to this short list.

  1. Governance guides need to be thoroughly thought through and documented.
  2. Those who contribute information need to be made aware of the governance guidelines.
  3. A governance document should not be seen as a barrier to creativity and collaboration.
  4. Certain individuals should be wholly devoted to the task of enforcing governance.
  5. Those who consume information should have confidence that governance is being enforced to maintain findability, accuracy, etc.

I’d be interested to know how these overriding principles are being used in other successful governance implementations. I’d venture to bet that successful initiatives mimic much of the list above.  Whether SharePoint or Wikipedia the same governance principles apply and are necessary.