Monday, February 16, 2009

Do wikis change development work?

Friday 13th was well and safely spent in Utrecht where ICCO organised a session with David Weekly, the founder of Pbwiki. I wrote a somehow faithful summary for the icollaboration weblog (which is starting to look more like my blog than a teamblog...but never mind since I believe in making what's happening in the group accessible online!).

I will use this space to elaborate more on my own thinking and my sceptism. Though I'm a social media adopter, I also have my reservations. For one thing, it was interesting to understand from David Weekly what the online wiki niche is. Large companies have their own online packages and stuff (like sharepoint) but that wikis like pbwiki come in handy for cross company collaboration. People in large companies are setting up wikis because the other applications run behind firewalls that are not accessible to partners in other companies. In development, this is a different case. Large organisations may have applications, but smaller development organisations in the north or organisations in the south may not have invested in any systems. Wikis (free or for a small sum of money) are then a good solution that empower people to set up wikis to collaborate with others online. If you know how to work with wikis and have a certain level of access to the internet that it. Easy and free= empowering?

However, I have the impression that so few people like working with wikis and are comfortable working with wikis that the real revolution that Shirky promised, worldwide collaboration at scales we have never seen, is still very far ahead for development. The wiki examples are more online libraries build by a few enthousiastic persons than representing a new way of collaborating. It looks cool to put a conference online is a wiki, but how does it support learning and decision making? Maybe I'm putting my expectations of wikis too high in a way. And we may not have investigated it enough.

My worry is that if development organisations set up wikis to do the same work they used to do- it might not change anything substantially in the distribution of powers in the current development process. I guess that needs more, a vision of what to build or collaborate on (like wikipedia had ofcourse a great vision of becoming an online encyclopedia), and a process to bring stakeholders together around that vision in a new manner. Or the other way around, having a spontaneous collaboration. But maybe a much larger group needs to be comfortable working with wikis and other collaborative tools before that happens. Being overoptimistic may be counterproductive.

Ofcourse a wiki is only a tool, like a hammer, and anyone is free to use it as he/she wishes. But somehow the tools seems really powerful in the hands of a community. Like the km4dev wiki is a growing resource and dynamic repository. But it's not easy to stimulate people to make their hands dirty. And many may learn more from the verbal interactions than looking at the wiki so we should not overestimate the importance. It's a gut feeling that we should not measure change by the number of wikis, but by how the wikis changed the participation in the processes, and the truth is that we might exclude people too. I'm fearing too that partners organisation may start wikis because they have the feeling some donors are suddenly into wikis. But that may be diverting attention from what we should really focus on. Any ideas? Do you share my concerns?

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