Sunday, December 26, 2010

Adhocratic Governance on Wikipedia...

"Governance", as any good dissertation adviser will tell you, is a term often misused, meaning different things to different people. My research defines it through a policymaking lens - Governance is the ability to both constrain and enable behavior by creating policies that produce intentional effects at a systemic level.

Along this line of thought, Piotr Konieczny recently published an article in the Journal of Information Technology and Politics where he argues that Wikipedia is ruled by "adhocratic governance".

"Adhocracy" is based on the idea of doing something "ad-hoc", meaning in an improvised, on-the-fly sort of way. For instance, some people believe that the internet is governed in an ad-hoc manner, simply dealing with problems as they arise. I, of course, argue that this is ridiculous and that there are unquestionably various institutions and policies in place that create a formal system of authority. Regardless, according to previous scholars like Mintzberg, "adhocracy" is a system superior to bureaucracy and one that will even eventually replace it. It is "any form of organization that cuts across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results". The five features of adhocracies are...

  1. They operate in a complex and dynamic environment and are highly innovative.

  2. Innovations require highly trained and motivated experts.

  3. The experts may be formally allocated to different divisions but usually work in informal, multidisciplinary teams.

  4. Coordination and communication rely on semiformal structures, while more formalized structures and managerial practices are rare.

  5. Parts of the organization are highly decentralized.

Wikipedia certainly fits this description, but only to an extent - which is where I would take issue with some of Konieczny's claims.

Most people are aware that anybody can publish and edit posts on Wikipedia; in fact, that is its defining characteristic. However, what people are less aware of is the organizational structure behind the WikiMedia Foundation - the website's non-profit parent organization.

As the article highlights, even though the website uses an open-source model of knowledge creation, the organization's power structure is far less democratic. Jimmy Wales is the project's co-founder and, in his revered celebrity status, holds a certain level of "charismatic authority". There is also the Board of Trustees which holds the ultimate legal authority to make decisions and even amend the WikiMedia bylaws themselves. Some members of the Board are elected; some are appointed. Then there is the primary dispute resolution mechanism - the Arbitration Committee - a body that has the power to review editors' complaints against one another, ban editors from the site, and impose other restrictions. "Ordinary editors" of Wikipedia only function below the authority of these institutions in the structural hierarchy.

To put this clearly, and despite public perception, Jimmy Wales and the Board of Trustees are "not officially responsible to the community, and they can legally overrule and change community decision".

Furthermore, there is a two-tier class system among the editors themselves. There are "regular editors" who are respected and recognized above the level of an "ordinary editor". There are also thousands of "esteemed editors" who hold electable positions and are recognized with various titles, including "administrators". Such positions often grant access to special tools, such as the ability to delete a page or to protect it from editing by others, or to block other specific editors.

So what does all of this mean? In short, Konieczny is correct in asserting that "there is evident disparity of power between the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia's editors", and, for that matter, even more disparity of power among the editors themselves. This would seem to contradict the "adhocratic" characterization which values a flat hierarchy, decentralization, little managerial control, and ad-hoc creation of informal multidisciplinary teams. Konieczny attempts to defend it by saying that, although the Board of Trustees has, in theory, ultimate legal authority, it almost never exercises it. That's a true statement, but not sufficient enough of a defense to maintain an argument that adhocratic governance rules in this particular case. The legal distinctions definitely do matter, and more so than Konieczny wants to admit.


At 1:16 PM, Blogger Piotr Konieczny said...

Well, I still think my argument was right. Yes, in theory, adhocratic government is subordinate to non-adhocratic on Wikipedia, but in practice, adhocractic solutions hold the day most of the time.

What I'd like to analyze more is the relation between adhocratic and bureaucratic aspects on Wikipedia. There is a lot of very interesting interplay between those two on Wikipedia, with adhocracy creating bureaucracy, that deserves further analysis.

At 7:39 AM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

Hi Piotr, thank for the comment. I suppose the issue we're debating centers on how Wikipedia is more bureaucratic in official terms, but more adhocratic in actual practice. The classification merely depends on which context we believe is more significant. Personally, although I'm fully aware of the open and decentralized tendencies of actual internet behavior, I'm continually amazed at how few official structures codify such principles on a formal policy basis.

Determining the relativity between adhocracy and bureaucracy on Wikipedia sounds like a terrific subject for you to pursue. Good luck :-)


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