[Foundation-l] Community, collaboration, and cognitive biases

Rob Lanphier robla at wikimedia.org
Thu Jun 10 00:46:35 UTC 2010

On Tue, Jun 8, 2010 at 6:28 PM, Aryeh Gregor
<Simetrical+wikilist at gmail.com<Simetrical%2Bwikilist at gmail.com>
> wrote:

> It's not specific to Wikimedia, it's practically universal in
> open-source development.  To get it to happen, you need pushing from
> the top: formally stating it as part of people's job duties (so they
> don't feel they have to do "real work" instead), and forcing them to
> engage by only giving them public media to discuss things in with
> their co-workers.

Hi Aryeh,

First, let me state from the outset: I think it's great to work out in the
open, and I find that the people I'm working with at WMF are at the leading
edge of community collaboration on a number of fronts (compared to peers at
typical tech companies or even non-profits).  Feel Free to ping me on IRC,
email about anything I'm working on right now (that goes for others as
well).  Note also: in the spirit of this conversation, I didn't run this by
anyone at WMF, and I'm still using my @wikimedia.org address anyway (and I'm
only a contractor).  We'll see if I get in any hot water for that ;-)  Just
so you know, part of my job here (besides work on Pending Changes) is to
work on development process at WMF, so this thread is pretty relevant to my
day job here.

As you know, any time you want to compel someone to do something, there's
always the carrot and the stick.  One thing I don't like about the way
you've phrased that is that is that you seem to be advocating the stick.  Am
I reading that right?

One undertone that I've witnessed everywhere is that people in open source
communities that have a clear organizational "owner" is that there is a very
uneven distribution of people who want a peer-to-peer relationship versus a
customer-vendor relationship.  This makes it really difficult to work out in
the public, because some people seem to prefer the trappings of a
peer-to-peer relationship (let me in on your early thinking, publish your
roadmaps, work in the fishbowl), where others prefer the trappings of the
customer-vendor relationship (the customer is always right, the customer is
the boss).  Some will even go so far as to want a customer-to-peer
relationship, which is clearly not sustainable.  To be really clear here,
most of my impressions on this topic come from my previous work experience
(been doing the corporate open source thing for a while), and only in a
limited way with this community, but I've seen hints that the
WMF<=>community relationship has some of the same traits.

>From the vantage point of the "vendor" in this case, the problem is
compounded by the cognitive bias Erik pointed to (belief that the group
you're a member of is diverse, whereas other groups are not).  The net
result of different expectations in the community is that, from the vendor
point of viewer, it looks like the community is demanding a customer-to-peer
relationship, since that is the "average" opinion of a pretty large and
diverse group.  That's why I'm generally pretty careful about using the term
"the community", because for those not used to working out in the open, it's
really scary to get mixed up in public conversations.

One thing to consider about the IBM example is that IBM is a company of
about 400,000 employees, and was probably in the middle of their "we're
spending $1 billion/year on Linux" year when they instituted that policy.
 They could probably stand to be a little inefficient in the name of
insinuating themselves in the community.  We're not working with that sort
of cushion.

As someone who currently works from Seattle (and worked on a distributed
team in my last job), I also know that long distance collaboration (even in
the same timezone as SF) has its disadvantages from an efficiency
perspective.  Most people have a strong preference for face-to-face
communication for collaboration for good reason...it's high bandwidth.  Even
people who are really good at doing it take some time to figure out how to
be effective using only email and IRC; forcing people who aren't good at it
is really a productivity hit.

My recommendation is to strive to make it incredibly compelling for WMF
staff to work out in the community.  That means adhering to WP:BITE and
WP:GOODFAITH in spades, and reminding each other that we're all on the same
team here.  It means making sure that it actually feels like it's increasing
our productivity to do it, rather than feeling like a drag.  That's not to
say the burden needs to be solely on you all, but I think "forcing"
employees to work in the community is some customer-vendor thinking at play.

Don't get me wrong: I think it's an incredibly good idea for us to figure
out how to all work together better, and clearly a big part of that is going
to be strengthening our working relationship with non-employees.  It wasn't
that long ago I was a non-employee Wikipedian, and may be one again soon.  I
share your goal.  We have an amazingly diverse community with (very
importantly) a fantastic volunteer work ethic, and I think we should be able
to figure this out.

So, I'll start chipping in my work at the page Erik has started:

...and I encourage you to, too.  I probably won't start in earnest until
after the Pending Changes launch next week, but I will get out there.


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