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Learning & Development Blog


The Division of Wiki Labor: Wikis in the Working World

It’s often been said that one of the best ways to learn a subject is to attempt to teach it to others. Whereas a hazy, half-developed understanding of something might be good enough to allow you to squeak by on your own, to be able to teach a topic requires all-around mastery of the material.

While the truth behind this statement is well documented, its translation into the world of the busy worker is not always so cut-and-dried. Every year, the number of tools and processes that the average employee is required to have some level of expertise with increases, while the amount of time devoted to training decreases. Those subject matter experts with the inclination to pass on their knowledge to others increasingly find that their avenues to do so are either blocked or shrinking rapidly. The result for companies can be a situation where crucial corporate know-how becomes scattered, resulting in costly delays and less-than-optimal work-products.

Given the validity of the “teaching is the best way to learn” philosophy, and the equal validity of the “our workers don’t have time” response, what is a company to do? The first option, of course, is to bring in a training team to develop all the training you need, in a format that fits in with your workers busy schedule, such as eLearning or mLearning. The problem with this, though, is that while it provides your employees with the training they need at that particular moment, it doesn’t make them experts the way teaching the material would. Further, and as a result, it’s not necessarily something your company can update on its own, meaning that it will be out-of-date shortly, potentially within months or even weeks.

A better option, and one that is being increasingly adopted in the higher education sphere, is a combination of outside training with a user-directed wiki template. By using a wiki, employees can still share their knowledge with their colleagues and learn from others, but the amount of work they are responsible for is drastically reduced. Rather than being responsible for a whole subject, such as, say demand chain management, they can focus on just a sliver of that overall topic, such as forecasting. The result is a division of labor that is more productive and manageable in scope. Further, work is constantly updatable and subject to review and revision by one’s colleagues.

A perfect example of how wikis are being combined with more formal instruction to drive improved engagement and mastery of subject matter can be found in an article recently published in the New York Times: For More Students, Working on Wikis is Part of Making the Grade. The article details how professors at Singapore Management University have seen improvements in retention and depth of understanding since wikis were incorporated as a central aspect of certain courses. As Michael Netzley, one of the professors covered in the article notes of the efficacy of wikis:

“Rather than trying to read a textbook and regurgitate it for an exam, in order to write coherent segments, you have to actually intellectually understand it and be able to craft your own words, and that is a higher level of learning challenge.”

As an additional benefit, the article mentions that the private aspect of editing a wiki – as opposed to standing up and speaking – brought forth contributions from students who otherwise would have been too shy to participate fully.

For those companies – or employees – looking to share expertise in an economical and achievable manner, incorporating a collaborative wiki in to the mix is an idea well worth consideration.

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