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Network Strategic Planning: The Wikimedia Case Study

Posted by Steve Waddell in Net Dev on April 7, 2010

The most exciting approach to strategic planning for networks that I’ve heard of is underway at the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF). That’s the organization supporting development of Wikipedia and nine other aligned projects with the vision of a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.

The distinctive structural element of the Wikimedia community is that it is organized around language groups. All told, there are 700 language-specific sites across 10 projects (Wikipedia is one). Millions of international volunteers contribute to these projects, about 100,000 actively.

Eugene Eric Kim of Blue Oxen Associates is leading the Foundation’s planning process. Kim has been active in the wiki community since 2002. WMF launched the planning process last July with a 2010-2015 focus and two major concerns. One is that community participation has tailed off and even started to decline. And the second is simply to strengthen the ability to realize the vision. Kim explains that Wikimedia is “…only reaching about 15 percent of the world, fewer than 35% of US people on line in US have ever accessed it.”

Wikimedia founder Jimmy Wales announced the project last August with his “State of the Wiki” speech at the annual Wikimania Conference, held in Buenos Aires with over 400 Wikimedians. This and all other information on the planning initiative are available through a nice, simple web-page.There are four phases: Level-Setting, Deep Dives (both completed), Synthesis and Business Planning/Call to Action (both underway).

Five Asks for Network Participants

But I like the way Kim describes the project in terms of five “asks”: “the roles we want (Wikimedians) to play. It is important to figure it out up front.” These are sequential:

  1. Brainstorming with a call for proposals. This ask is designed to get people engaged and to listen to the community. Over 800 proposals were received.
  2. Over 2-1/2 months, getting people to look at specific topics arising from the proposals and research, and coming up with specific recommendations.
  3. Asking Wikimedians to review the recommendations and refine them into draft goals.
  4. Collectively looking at the draft goals and how to realize them with an action plan.
  5. Implementing the action plan.

I’m always a bit cautious about “strategic planning” when framed as “creating the plan” followed by “implementing the plan”. I think it was planning guru Henry Mintzberg who said the important thing is the process and focus upon the vision and goals, and that once it was “written” it should be thrown away. Instead, think of planning as an active verb that is an on-going cycle of action-assessing-planning.

But I really like Kim’s emphasis on this process as building the capacity of the Wikimedian community to think and act strategically. As he says, the whole concept of “strategic planning” means so many different things to different people. WMF boiled it down to two questions: "Where are we now?", "Where should we go?"

Good participation with representative viewpoints is a key concern. “Ideally we would have one person from each of the 700 Wikimedia projects,” Kim says. About 1% of the 100,000 wikimedians are responsible for 50% of the content, and in the planning they’ve had up to 80 people very engaged in different activities. So the active participants are not numerous. However, the process has emphasized transparency and there are many more participants following along. As well, to ensure the inclusion of diverse perspectives the process has included interviews and other research.

The planning is supported by a team that includes consultants from the Bridgespan Group and WMF staff as well as Kim. Transparency was one of the big contentious issues in the process. Everyone supports being transparent, but there were different views about how much to share and when. Should differences within the support team be part of the on-line discussion? When does information become distracting and confusing as opposed edifying and helpful?

Of course this planning approach is possible in part because the community already has an on-line culture. The Wikimedia tools were used extensively; Kim notes that they are not always the best technologically for a particular function, but they work for the community.

By the end of April the process will have completed the Synthesis; the business Plan/Call to Action will be completed by July, in time for presentation to Wikimania 2010 in Gadansk, Poland.

How does this compare with your planning approach?

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