Wharton goes 'wiki' with new book

Using Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, as a model, the Wharton School Publishing imprint of Pearson is inviting more than a million business professionals and scholars to collectively write and edit a book. The volume, tentatively titled “We Are Smarter Than Me,” will address how businesses can use social networks, wikis (online communities) and blogs to boost their bottom line. You could call it a book about “wikis” written by a wiki, or, as Jon Spector puts it, “It’s a play within a play.”

Spector, who is vice dean of Executive Education at Wharton and a cofounder of the project, acknowledges the book, which is slated for publication in the fall of 2007, is “all quite experimental.” Among those invited to contribute are faculty, students and alumni from the MIT Sloan School of Management and Wharton, though anyone can contribute their two cents by registering at www.WeAreSmarter.org. How, then, will the publishers ensure that the information is reliable and accurate?

That is a central issue, says Spector, but one that’s different for a book than an encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the most famous of the wikis, has had its critics, but recent research on its reliability has called into question the assumption that it is less reliable than the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Also, and perhaps more importantly, says Spector, when there is an error on the site it lasts on average 4 seconds before another user corrects it.

Besides, with a wiki-based book, what is being provided, notes Spector, is not so much the neutral information of an encyclopedia but “a synthesis of information, and that information needs to be correct to convey frameworks, points of view, to frame debates, to help someone think rather than just provide them with specific pieces of information.”

That said, the publishers have planned some built-in accuracy measures. “We’re very practical,” says Spector. “We haven’t completely [drunk] the Kool-Aid. We’ve hired a superb ghostwriting team …to provide fact checking and final documentation.”

Getting big-name business experts to share their proprietary knowledge without the lure of a big fee or royalties is another potential challenge. “We’ve ended up with an imperfect solution,” says Spector, “which grants the project the right to publish what people are contributing but promises to contribute most of the available royalties to charity.” Based on the number of “deeply knowledgeable” people who devote their time to contributing to Wikipedia, Spector says he thinks we’ve reached a point where experts are interested in contributing their thoughts to advance a community.

Perhaps the biggest question is how the thousands of contributions expected over the next few months will be organized into a cogent 120-page book. The ghostwriters, says Spector, will help edit the contributions down to something that has narrative and a “voice,” though he also suspects the community itself may perform some of that function. We already know, he says, that communities can predict elections better than market researchers or political science experts. “They can play a value adding role in ways you’d never think possible,” he says. “We know where it works and we can imagine where it doesn’t. It probably doesn’t work building a building. It does work in predicting elections. A book is somewhere in the middle.”

A skeleton structure for the book has already been established, with chapter headings on marketing, sales, product design and other areas of business that can benefit from online communities. The creators of the web site have also added some content to get things started, including an anecdote about an Australian businessman who started a mail-order brewery based on votes by 20,000 cellphone users on what makes a great beer. Spector anticipates that anecdotes will form a large part of the book, but he also hopes contributors will provide frameworks and draw conclusions.

Already, the community has started shaping the discussion. One contributor among the more than 1,000 who have so far registered suggested adding a chapter on religion. That may not get in the book, says Spector, but, “you’ve got people thinking about this stuff from different perspectives and coming up with interesting ideas.”
To learn more about the project, go to www.WeAreSmarter.org.

Originally published on December 7, 2006.

Originally published on December 7, 2006