Running an Office by Wiki and E-Mail

Low-cost tools leverage the power of groups at work.

Shirky recommends wikis for developing a consensus.

Shirky recommends wikis for developing a consensus.

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Wikis, blogs, E-mail, and other new technologies are reshaping how customers, workers, and companies interact—and making it much cheaper and easier to be in touch. In his new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Penguin), Clay Shirky zeroes in on which tools are best suited for various tasks. Excerpts from a chat with U.S. News:

What's the thesis of the book?
One of the underappreciated revolutions that the Internet is bringing about is the ability for groups to communicate together and to do things together. In particular, you get groups doing it who don't have to look or operate like traditional organizations.

What's the best practical advice for getting new groups to function in a business?
One of the first impulses is to get everybody talking to everybody. That wastes people's time. Set up a mailing list. Set up a wiki. The tools to do it are quite simple. See what they discover in talking to one another. It's a really low-cost way of exploring things that matter to your business without having to create complicated additional structures.

What kinds of jobs are these tools best suited for?
Let me run down the tool by the task it's good for.

Sharing. It's the simplest of all. Without a lot of conversation or agreement, I'm going to put stuff up, and you can see it on Flickr or YouTube. You can put stuff up, and I can see it. Tagging was the crucial development. We can now find each other's stuff as a social side effect of sharing.

Conversation. It's hard to beat E-mail lists. People live in their E-mail boxes. [A list] is what you need if you want to increase peripheral vision. It's good for making people aware, roughly, of what each other is doing or to present a standing question like, "How do I do this specific thing?"

Collaboration. For when you actually want to make something, the classic is the wiki. Instead of producing a divergent opinion the way E-mail lists do, it produces a convergent opinion. [Through editing by individuals] the content of a page comes to reflect a kind of state-of-the-meeting consensus. Google Docs is famously a wiki-in-one-page where lots of people can simultaneously edit. People are doing it for spreadsheets as well. If I had to bet on any tool that would make huge progress in the next 12 months, that would be it.

How do these technologies change the way you manage time and people?
You have to make failures informative, so no burying mistakes.

What does that say about larger-scale strategy, like product development?
A classic mistake for businesses trying to take advantage of these new ways of communicating is to announce some big new initiative you'll roll out in nine months. If you announce beforehand what you're going to do, it raises expectations and prevents you from learning as you go.

  • Kirk Shinkle

    Kirk Shinkle is a senior editor for U.S. News Money and manages the Best Funds portal. Follow him on Twitter @KirkS or email him at