Creating Organisational Clarity using a Semantic Wiki

Vaughan Merlyn discusses a new way of creating organisational clarity by using Semantic Wikis. A Semantic Wiki holds an underlying model of the knowledge described in its pages, thereby capturing the meaning of the data within the wiki. Furthermore, they have the ability to accommodate the complexities and fluidity inherent in contemporary Operating Models, thereby enabling collaborative continuous improvement.

How clear is your Operating Model?

Attempts to improve organisational clarity typically meet with limited success. The familiar refrain, “We need better communications!” speaks to the symptoms, but not to the underlying causal factors.

I have found that organisational confusion often is a result of a lack of Operating Model clarity. For example, it is hard to get straight answers to questions such as:

  • Who is accountable for what?
  • Who is working on what?
  • What is the latest version of the process?
  • What are our rules of engagement?

Traditional approaches to establishing clarity often result in numerous PowerPoint slides, Word documents and Excel spreadsheets that collectively attempt to define the different facets of an Operating Model (eg processes, services, governance, structure, metrics). While these often bring clarity to the people who created them, they rarely become part of the organisational fabric and quickly become out of date.

Furthermore, this documentation is typically created through a series of workshops involving representatives from different parts of the organisation. Often those who are expected to bring the newly defined Operating Models to life don’t get exposure to the work until relatively late and as they have not been involved in the creation process, it’s not surprising that they are slow to understand and embrace it.

There is a better way

An alternative approach is to use the capabilities that are emerging from Web 2.0 technologies, specifically a new type of collaboration tool called the Semantic Wiki. Using such an approach enables broader and deeper participation by staff at all levels, and leaves behind a ‘living, breathing’ definition of the Operating Model that is captured as a set of editable and easily accessible wiki pages. These pages are developed collaboratively, so the act of development and deployment essentially becomes concurrent. Furthermore, the Semantic Wiki has the ability to accommodate the complexities and fluidity inherent in contemporary Operating Models, thereby enabling collaborative continuous improvement. 

1995 – The Wiki Is Born!

Wikis have been at the heart of collaboration since Ward Cunningham created the first Wiki, known as WikiWikiWeb in 1995. The keys to a wiki are:

  1. The ease with which people can collaboratively create, access and edit documents.
  2. The fact that those documents can be hyperlinked to create complex and networked text that allows the reader to navigate both linearly (as with traditional text) and non-linearly (jumping from idea to idea).
  3. The ease with which documents can be searched – with the knowledge that you are always looking at the current and only version of the document.

The Proverbial Double-Edged Sword!

However, these strengths create vulnerabilities. For example, the ease with which pages can be created and edited can lead to a chaotic free-for-all, as content becomes subject to the whims of authors and editors, and, with the absence of a meaningful underlying structure, pages proliferate.

Sites such as Wikipedia mitigate these limitations through a robust system of editorial administration, oversight and management – enhanced by the ‘law of large numbers’. With a sufficiently large universe of editors, the content of any Wikipedia page quickly converges towards a mean, reflecting ‘the wisdom of the crowd’. But with an internal wiki, the law of large numbers does not apply, so without other mechanisms to manage structure and content, the wiki degrades in quality and value over time.

Semantic Wikis to the Rescue!

But all is not lost, as leading wiki platforms gain semantic extensions to become Semantic Wikis. These tap into the special properties of the Semantic Web, a term first coined by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. A Semantic Web goes beyond the traditional web concept of hyperlinked, human-readable web pages by inserting machine-readable metadata about pages and how they are related to each other. 

Building on the Semantic Web concept, a Semantic Wiki has an underlying model of the knowledge described in its pages, thereby capturing the meaning of the data within the wiki. While traditional wikis have structured text and hyperlinks, a Semantic Wiki captures and identifies information about the data within its pages, and the relationships between pages, in ways that can be queried or exported like a database. For example, you can declare the underlying semantic properties of an Operating Model, such as:

  • Processes require people taking on specific roles
  • Roles point to specific competencies people must have to fill them
  • Competencies comprise specific knowledge, skills and behaviours
  • Metrics define process performance.

Having these semantic properties explicitly defined enables wiki governance rules and workflows. For example, someone defining a new process will be prompted to define the associated competencies needed for that process, and an appropriate template can be automatically loaded for defining those competencies, thereby encouraging consistency and quality. 

A Semantic Wiki can accommodate the different needs of a complex Operating Model supporting different value propositions. Where the primary value proposition is operational, a tightly structured Semantic Wiki with a robust governance model is ideal. Where the primary value proposition is more about innovation, then a loosely governed Semantic Wiki with ‘sandboxes’ to generate and test ideas is preferable.

Fortunately, today’s leading wiki platforms with their semantic extensions offer a single, integrated solution that allows both types of model to comfortably coexist, enabling searching across spaces and driving organisational clarity.

Semantic Wikis can bring clarity to any Operating Model. An example of its use in IT is given in my article Empowering IT Organisational Performance using a Semantic Wiki.

I welcome your thoughts.

Vaughan Merlyn

Formicio Insight Article: Creating Organisational Clarity using a Semantic Wiki

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