The complex phenomenon of leadership in the wiki world
- Update: The consultation has been extended, and will now run through October 23, 2016.
All big projects face this question from time to time: things need to change. Things might be humming along, but if danger is on the horizon, coordinated effort might be needed. For a traditional organization, a number of well-known practices can be employed to bring about change. The field of organization development has emerged to compare and refine what does and doesn’t work to bring about change. But when an organization like the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) seeks to stimulate its volunteer communities’ efforts to bring about meaningful change, as it does in its present community consultation about leadership, it faces significant challenges.
Focused change can be more challenging for projects (like those built on wikis) that are decentralized and explicitly non-hierarchical projects. Chloe Waretini spent six months in 2015 focusing on the evolving needs of Enspiral, a non-hierarchical network of consultants looking to increase their social impact. As she said in her 2015 essay Enspiral Catalyst: A 6-month crash course in 21st Century leadership:
||Leadership positions come with no authority attached. No one in the network has a right to tell anyone else what to do, so making any organisational developments requires a lot of social manoeuvring — building credibility and collective motivation behind your initiatives.
Waretini's position allowed her to see that the organic rate of change in the network was faster than members less centrally involved might perceive, and that many changes were never documented. She observed:
||Making sense of it all enough to direct our efforts intelligently takes up a lot of cognitive real estate.
Researcher Haiyi Zhu has observed in a 2011 paper that, in online peer production communities, leadership often comes through group identification, goal setting and implicit social modeling; she argues that the methods employed in traditional organizations can be ineffective, or even counterproductive, in online communities.
If this sounds familiar, you might just be a Wikimedian. For years, broad issues have called out for our collective attention: Will we allow advertising? Is our coverage biased toward certain topic areas, or in the way topics are presented? Are the demographics of our editor base skewed? How can the subjects of articles best lodge complaints or make suggestions?
When these topics come up, individuals—whether volunteers or staff of various organizations—can be a key component in advancing solutions. They might do so by quietly nudging discussions forward and observing patterns; by generating and executing new ideas; by creating scripts, bots, and other technical tools; or by building relationships with valuable potential partners in Wikimedia's broad vision. We might call such efforts "leadership", noting Waretini's caveat about the lack of authority.
Researchers Benjamin Collier and Robert Kraut found in 2012 that leaders in the Wikipedia community evolve gradually into their roles, first deepening their understanding of the community, and then forming important connections to other influential individuals. Past leadership development efforts in education and GLAM outreach have taken on the kind of learning and networking considered in the study. Now, a new effort of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Learning & Evaluation (L&E) team takes aim at that dynamic, exploring ways to bring leaders and potential leaders together. The team has launched a consultation (which runs through October 16). The announcement and the consultation page might suggest that the effort is limited to volunteers who launch new projects, or that in-person training sessions will be the core of WMF’s efforts; but in an interview with the Signpost, the L&E team reveals more ambitious goals.
The consultation pages set out a goal of creating a "peer academy", and invite input on "in-person trainings organized by the WMF." But Jaime Anstee, senior manager of L&E, describes the peer academy as a "shared space to coordinate and support leadership development across the movement." It would consist of more than a series of regular events: "other training initiatives, toolkits, and guides, as well as other resource support" would also be part of the academy, said Anstee. She emphasized the benefits her team has seen from its efforts to date: Wikimedians have come to more consistently plan for and document their programmatic activities, she reports. Anstee and her team see these practices as part of an approach that could lead to "better practices for listening across our communities", which may, in time, reduce controversy.
The L&E team’s initial announcement cited two successful instances of leadership: Liam Wyatt’s pioneering Wikipedian in residence (WiR) role at the British Museum, and Vassia Atanassova’s more recent #100wikidays challenge. The Signpost reached out to the two volunteers for comment.
Atanassova stressed that #100wikidays, a commitment to write an article every day for 100 sequential days, started off as a personal challenge—not as something she intended to impose on others. But she feels that she stumbled on an important leadership recipe: "step out of your comfort zone, commit to something worth doing but obviously difficult, practice what you preach, and set an example for others to follow." She also found value in self-deprecating humor: "have fun, make fun of yourself and let others do so. We call each other 'victims' or 'patients'." Atanassova has participated in several of WMF’s Learning Days, and credited them with helping to build awareness of the challenge among Wikimedians, in a variety of language communities.
Wyatt, who currently serves on the WMF's Funds Dissemination Committee, took a broad view of the peer academy concept, placing it in the context of the WMF's long-term strategic efforts and of a general challenge it faces. He praised the "peer academy" and its ambition to connect people around leadership activities.
Wyatt also noted the WMF's own approach to leadership -- perhaps ironically, a commitment to not lead—as a crucial ingredient in the WiR model’s success: "By specifically absenting themselves from the field on the topic of GLAM [and WiR] it allowed a space for the Chapters to exist uncontested, and to justify their existence." Unlike other areas, the WMF was explicit and consistent, in its strategic plan and in other communications, in declining to take a leadership role in developing Wikipedian in residence programs. This clarity, according to Wyatt, permitted affiliate organizations and individuals to move into leadership roles, confident they would not need to compete with a better-funded, more official organization.
But Wyatt also emphasized a concern—something he feels applies to a variety of WMF efforts—that the WMF’s role "ought to be to facilitate and assist others to do great stuff, not to try to do it directly themselves". So the peer academy "cannot be a centralised program or process if it is to be able to work at a global scale—this is as true for building human skills as it is for fundraising or for working with schools or museums." He notes that although affiliate organizations' role in training and leadership development is acknowledged in the community consultation, affiliates "are not identified as partners."
The Signpost also reached out to M. O. Stevens (known to Wikipedians as Aboutmovies), who initiated WikiProject Oregon's Collaboration of the Week (COTW) program in 2007. (Past Signpost coverage here and here.) Haiyi Zhu's 2011 study found that the group identification, goal setting and implicit social modeling inherent in that program had a positive impact on volunteer retention and productivity. Stevens cited his personal experience on Wikipedia as the inspiration for the program: he had found it difficult to generate interest in the fledgling WikiProject to move the Oregon State Capitol article through the featured article process. With COTW, he hoped not only to get help improving the articles that interested him, but to encourage fellow volunteers to step up with their own projects and ideas. Like Atanassova, he cites goofy humor as an important ingredient in getting people involved. Over the years, the COTW has achieved a number of content improvements, and is still going (if not on a weekly basis) in 2016.
Stevens raised a point echoed by several people: some Wikipedians might look on events like Learning Days as a reward. Without an accountability structure, he wonders whether in-person training will produce tangible results, or whether they will instead become sought-after social events inaccessible to most Wikipedians. Stevens sees tangible benefits—payment, or rewards like gift cards—as a more accountability-driven way to motivate Wikipedians.
Our discussions revealed that the topic of leadership cultivation opens a number of questions, some of which are central to what Wikimedia and the Wikimedia Foundation aim to become. The kind of "shared vision for leadership development" imagined by the L&E team might, ideally, be tied to a broader strategic plan; but the Wikimedia strategic plan developed in 2010 expired in 2015, and plans to develop another have not yet produced a result. Do we have a strong shared understanding of where we want to go? In the absence of a plan, that is unclear. When ideas of leadership extend into areas beyond uncontroversial success, the absence of a shared strategic vision may come to the fore.
Thus far, the discussion on Meta Wiki points to many details, but does not appear to address the broader questions around designing a system to cultivate and support leadership activities in depth. One related grant proposal, however, has emerged.
Eugene Eric Kim, who guided the WMF's 2010 effort, is a wholehearted proponent of efforts to cultivate leadership—an idea he considered for the strategic plan, but which that didn’t gain traction at the time.
||I think most people take leadership for granted and view it mostly as something you find rather than develop", says Kim. "I deeply believe that one of the most impactful roles that the Wikimedia Foundation and other chapters (or anyone really who cares) could play in the movement would be both to nurture, model, and shine a spotlight on great community leadership.
When asked about the challenges surrounding the WMF's software launches, Erik Möller, the WMF's deputy director from 2007 to 2015, said: "What I'd like to see going forward is better mechanisms for volunteers and WMF to work in concert with each other."
Perhaps a peer academy can provide a forum for developing such mechanisms; or perhaps its formation will be impeded by their absence. And trying to build the peer academy may be the only way to find out.
- Join the discussion on Meta Wiki, active until October 16.
- Update: The consultation has been extended, and will now run through October 23, 2016.