May 20, 2010

How Should Wikimedia Organize Itself?

The work of developing organizational models that preserve the unique features of Wikimedia's success and create the conditions that would support a greater scope of global activities, investments in infrastructure, and new services is discussed in this Harvard Business Review weblog post.

By: Barry Newstead

(This weblog post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website.)

Wikimedia is the product of an unprecedented collaboration of volunteers that one could argue simply emerged out of nothing. So, even posing the question of how to "organize" Wikimedia around the globe might seem counter-revolutionary.

The truth is that Wikimedia is already an organization of sorts. It has structures, processes and systems for getting the work done. There are groups (some very large, some very small) organized to manage each of the hundreds of Wikimedia projects around the world. There are 27 country chapters organizing activities. There are countless informal groups working on specific content projects and meeting socially. Finally, there is a foundation supporting the whole and playing a vital, albeit limited, role. As such, the question of organization is real, but it isn't the kind of organizational problem that one can solve from a management textbook or nonprofit case study.

In mid-April, I attended the annual Wikimedia chapters conference in Berlin. Organization of the movement was a real and present challenge, most are very young organizations (as is Wikimedia itself) trying to figure out how to play a useful role in supporting projects in their countries. The conference attendees were inspiring in their dedication to Wikimedia and their willingness to volunteer their personal time to the work (only 5 chapters have a paid staff member, and only Germany has more than one).

Not surprisingly, organizational issues are emerging. To name a few: What rights do chapters have to represent and initiate partnerships on behalf of Wikimedia in their countries? Do chapters have a responsibility to all Wikimedia volunteers or only those who become dues paying members? What role do chapters have in fund-raising to support the overall Wikimedia activities around the world?

Over the course of the conference, two of the Foundation's Trustees began a dialogue about organizational development and movement roles. They sought to begin a process to create a charter for the movement that specified roles and responsibilities more clearly with the objective of creating simple ways for movement constituents to get things done. This work emerged from the lessons of other global nonprofit organizations studied by our colleagues and in interviews conducted during the Wikimedia strategy process. This research provided one overwhelming conclusion: We need to get in front of this issue because, as we learned from other organizations, the consequences of moving too slowly were frightening. We weren't able to identify a global nonprofit that had an organizational model that they felt worked well, even though most had been through one or more multi-year reorganization processes. We heard stories from multiple well-known NGOs about the decade-long restructuring processes that they'd been through. One global NGO leader told us: "It is enormously difficult to put the genie back in the bottle . . . The risk around organic growth is that the local entities feel empowered to do what they think is right, but this may not align over time with the larger movement's strategy."

So, how do we go about the work of developing organizational models that preserve the unique features of Wikimedia's success and create the conditions that would support a much greater scope of global activities, investments in critical infrastructure and new services for the movement as well as decision making processes that allow for effective resolution of difficult global or local policy challenges that emerge periodically?

We do know that there are some basic principles that are non-negotiable:

• All the work of the Wikimedia movement is focused towards the fulfillment of our vision: a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge
• Wikimedia is and will remain a decentralized movement with formal and informal leadership and support roles shared among different groups including readers, editors, other volunteers, the Wikimedia Foundation, advisers, supporters and like-minded organizations
• The Wikimedia Foundation's role is to protect and support perpetual accessibility of the core assets of Wikimedia for the global public good and to invest selectively in areas that support the fulfillment of the vision

Here's where we'd like your help: What do you see as critical areas of focus in sorting through the needs of a movement? What principles are non-negotiable? Are there aspects of organization that Wikimedia should explicitly avoid embracing? Are there success stories or examples that the Wikimedia team should be looking at?

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