This will be Part 1 of a 3-part post.  This short series represents the culmination of 5+ years of work (on top of a 40 year career in IT!) for me and my business partner, Roy Youngman.  The series of posts also marks the formal announcement of The Merlyn Group, LLC, a business venture we actually started one year ago, but have been ‘flying below the radar’ while we worked with our initial clients and technology.

A Little Historical Context

Roy and I started working together at Ernst & Young back in the early 1990’s.  About 5 years ago, we both became very frustrated with the state of management consulting.  The main problem we saw was a lack of “stickiness” with our consulting work.

Most of our consulting work was either helping clients develop business-IT strategies, or helping them realign their IT operating models (processes, services, governance, organization, metrics, and so on), often in support of new Business-IT strategies.  Our deliverables typically comprised PowerPoint slides, Word documents and Excel spreadsheets.  While these all played an important part of informing and aligning our client teams, the artifacts we’d leave behind rarely became part of their organizational fabric.

This was exacerbated by the fact that we’d typically arrive at those deliverables through a series of workshops – usually with the CIO and IT leadership team.  Middle managers and the ‘troops’ who had to bring those strategies and operating models to life often did not get exposure to the work until relatively late in the day.  Because they had not been part of the work, they were slow to understand and embrace it.

A smaller, but no less important concern was the travel involved in all of this.  Post 9-11, travel costs typically added 20% to the cost of an engagement – good for the airlines and hotels, perhaps, but not good for the client and certainly not good for us.  Time lost commuting and the wear and tear on mind and body took their toll.

Enter “Consulting 2.0″…

As the technologies and sensibilities of Web 2.0 and social media began to take hold, Roy and I started to see a better way to help our clients – a way that would engage broader and deeper participation by client staff at all levels, and that would leave behind a ‘living, breathing’ IT strategy and/or IT operating model, captured as a set of wiki pages.  These pages were developed collaboratively with our clients, so the act of development and deployment essentially became concurrent.  Defining the IT operating model was part of deploying it, and vice versa.

This 3-part series of posts will explain how we did this, and highlight some of our key learnings along the way.

The Unmet Promise of Collaboration

We had observed that IT organizational attempts to improve collaboration, enable knowledge management and drive organizational clarity typically met with limited success.  In our research and consulting work, we’d found that limitations with collaboration tools and platforms deployed by IT were a key factor in these disappointing results and that a ‘one size fits all’ approach was all but doomed to failure.  Some aspects of IT require a highly structured and tightly governed approach to enabling collaboration – process management and continuous process improvement, for example.  Other aspects, such as enterprise architecture and business-IT relationship management work best with a looser and more emergent approach.

The Art and Science of Collaboration

The great news was that a new type of tool was emerging – the Semantic Wiki.  We recognized that a semantic wiki would easily accommodate the complexities inherent in IT Operating Models.  But first, let’s review how wikis came about – and how their strengths can create serious limitations for use in an IT organization.

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.  Ward and co-author Bo Leuf, in their book The Wiki Way: Quick Collaboration on the Web, described the essence of the wiki concept as follows:

  • A wiki invites all users to edit any page or to create new pages within the wiki Web site, using only a plain-vanilla Web browser without any extra add-ons.
  • A wiki promotes meaningful topic associations between different pages by making page link creation almost intuitively easy and showing whether an intended target page exists or not.
  • A wiki is not a carefully crafted site for casual visitors. Instead, it seeks to involve the visitor in an ongoing process of creation and collaboration that constantly changes the Web site landscape.

According to Wikipedia, the world’s best-known and largest wiki:

A wiki enables communities to write documents collaboratively, using a simple markup language and a web browser.  A wiki is essentially a database for creating, browsing, and searching through information. A wiki allows for non-linear, evolving, complex and networked text, argument and interaction.  A defining characteristic of wiki technology is the ease with which pages can be created and updated. Generally, there is no review before modifications are accepted.”

The Wikis Strengths

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 page.
  4. As an inherently web-based concept, wikis benefit from evolving Web standards and technologies such as browsers, mark-up languages and even the magical world of open source – enabling Wiki users and developers to participate easily in a rapidly growing ecosystem of plug-ins.

The Proverbial Double-Edged Sword!

But these strengths also create vulnerabilities. Join me for Part 2 of this series, where will will look at the weaknesses of a wiki as an enabler of IT collaboration, and how a semantic wiki overcomes those limitations.

Graphic courtesy of Semantic Wikipedia

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