U.S. Army Embraces Wikis


In July, the U.S. Army broke with long-standing tradition and began encouraging all personnel to contribute to U.S. Army Field Manual.  The Army Field Manual, which contains detailed information and how-to’s, serves as a playbook for soldiers operating in the field.  The New York Times reports:

The goal, say the officers behind the effort, is to tap more experience and advice from battle-tested soldiers rather than relying on the specialists within the Army’s array of colleges and research centers who have traditionally written the manuals.

This is a major cultural shift for the quintessential “hierarchical” organization.  When people think of “top-down” management, the military is almost always one of the examples cited.  Now, the military is leap-frogging many U.S. corporations by opening the field manual to be authored by any and all personnel.  The director in charge of the project says:

For a couple hundred years, the Army has been writing doctrine in a particular way, and for a couple months, we have been doing it online in this wiki.  The only ones who could write doctrine were the select few. Now, imagine the challenge in accepting that anybody can go on the wiki and make a change — that is a big challenge, culturally.

I applaud this cultural shift by the military, and I think we are only scratching the surface with respect to how technologies like wikis, blogs and twitter will eventually flatten our organizations and empower the people on the front lines to make more and better decisions.

The wiki-Army Field Guide is an extension of the trend that started in 2001 when Jimmy Wales and Larry Senger applied the wiki concept to the encyclopedia.  At that time, the “select few” who were allowed to author encyclopedias were academics and researchers hand-picked by the editors.  While the information provided in the old format was often very good, it became outdated quickly and the total number of articles was limited by the size and cost of the books themselves.  Now, Wikipedia, has over 3 million articles in English alone, and is continuously updated as new information becomes available.  It will be interesting to see if the Army Field Manuel experiences a corresponding increase in size.  No doubt, the wiki Army Field Guide will be much timely and up-to-date.

There is also a trend to watch here for leadership development.  In the past, many companies have handed out Leadership Resource Guides to their managers.  Some of these were written by “experts” within a company, but most often they were books written by the “select few” from consulting companies.  The Successful Managers Handbook from PDI and For Your Improvementfrom Lominger are two popular examples.  I consider both of these books to be analogous to the Encyclopedia Britannica before 2001 and the Army Field Guide before July 2009.   These books are being displaced by fast-growing  wiki leadership resource guides like Leadershipedia.  Any registered member of the Leadershipedia community can access and edit a comprehensive resource guide with tips, articles, books, blogs, podcasts and videos related to leadership and management.  If you’re not already a member, I encourage you to become one today by registering.

At RealTime Performance we have also seen a trend in companies interested in developing a custom version of Leadershipedia that aligns with their own organizational culture and values.  Ross Smith of Microsoft developed the wiki-based Manager’s Playbook with tips and suggestions on how to build trust and become a better leader at Microsoft,  RealTime Performance recently started a project with Johnson & Johnson to develop a custom wiki-based resource guide for IT leadership development.

The bottom line is that wikis take authorship away from the “select few” experts and open up authorship to everyone. This changes the flow of knowledge from a top-down model to a network model, where everyone has the potential to be both student and teacher.  This, in turn, fosters collaboration and teamwork.  And in the end, better information gets into everyone’s hands, and the quality of decision making goes up across the board.

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