Why Wikipedia is a bad example of knowledge management

Nowadays, most peoples first contact with a wiki is through Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a great resource, but I think it’s a bad example of using a wiki for knowledge management. The limitation of Wikipedia is that it aims to be purely a repository of existing knowledge. Wikipedia policies require that content on the site is written from a neutral point of view, is verifiable and contains no original research: even going so far as to ban synthesis of other sources. Although reasonable in an encyclopaedia, these restrictions give the wrong idea about how wikis can be used for knowledge management. They encourage the idea that wikis are for knowledge capture, rather than knowledge creation, and that their main purpose is to produce a good knowledge store.

This bias extends to commercial wiki vendors, too. Wiki vendor MindTouch describes their wiki as making “knowledge easier to capture, find and consume” (thanks to Zoli’s Blog for the link), and Atlassian describe their wiki Confluence as “lowering the barriers to knowledge capture“.

However, there are other wikis than Wikipedia, and the original Wiki was designed for knowledge creation. The Portland Pattern Repository (also called the WikiWiki, or Ward’s Wiki) was the first Wiki, created by Ward Cunningham in 1995. Although technically simple, the Wiki’s brilliance was in its design: It facilitated asynchronous conversations between distributed contributors, enabling a dialogue across time and space. At its best, these conversations led to new insights, that were then formalised into documents.

The WikiWiki was originally focused around design patterns, but by the time I first encountered it in 1997, it was starting to be focussed around Extreme Programming, and since then has drifted into other topics without a clear focus. Some of the most interesting pages on it are the longest established ones: I particularly like the patterns pages, and the proto patterns.

At 67 Bricks, we’re using Semantic MediaWiki to help us create new knowledge, as well as to store our existing knowledge. I’ll write more about it in a future blog entry.

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