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Op-ed

Hard work needed to address Wikimedia’s leadership challenges


Wikimedia Foundation revenue; Lila Tretikov's first full fiscal year is highlighted in red.

With Tretikov's departure, the hard work of getting back on track lies ahead. It would be too easy to pin the problems of Tretikov's tenure entirely on her, when her appointment and leadership drew strong and sustained support from the Board of Trustees. The Board has now chosen an interim ED, and has chosen well. It should now take steps to ensure that its search for a long-term ED attracts good candidates, and doesn't drag out.

1. The Board should rethink the job description of the long-term ED. The official document has not been updated since 2008, and much of the trouble of the past two years can be traced to the version circulated in 2013, which emphasized technical and product development skills as the top qualification. The single most important quality for the Foundation's executive director should be an ability to work with broad and diverse groups of stakeholders. This skill is not unique to Wikimedia; it also applies to jobs like running a university or a hospital system, or working for change in a broad social movement. Neither technical proficiency nor Wikimedia experience should be regarded as requirements; and removing them from the "must-have" list will allow the foundation to cast a wider net and improve the candidate pool.

2. The Board should clearly establish that the interim ED position is not a fast-track to the long-term position. While it may be tempting to ease the search for a long-term ED, what the movement needs from an interim ED is a laser focus on re-establishing short-term stability and order. It's possible that a transition from interim to long-term will make sense, but a decision like that is an important one, and should only be made with eyes wide open, with other solid candidates in serious consideration.

3. The Board should set up the next long-term ED for success. Steps that would support this goal include:

Changes to Board composition: Are there members of the Board whose approach to the last job search, and/or whose engagement with the departing ED, pointed things in the wrong direction? If so, it might be best for them to step aside and make room for other Trustees to try a different approach. Although several new Trustees have been appointed recently, the ones who appear most closely tied to the problems of the last six months remain.

Optimize the hiring process: How are candidates recruited? How are they moved through the process? How are they evaluated? The organization can't afford to miss good candidates, or to lose them during an onerous or erratic interview period. It's important to define and maintain a consistent hiring process, to clearly identify who will narrow the field and make the final decision, and generally to respect candidates' time and effort.

Evaluate what went wrong: The Board should thoroughly and publicly debrief the recent crises. Not only will this serve candidates for the position by enlightening them to the history and the challenges they may face, but it will serve to clear the air around the conflicts that led to Tretikov's resignation. When Wikimedia UK raised eyebrows through relatively benign activities, the Foundation ordered a review by an external consultant. The Foundation should heed its own advice, and invite expert critique of its practices.

4. The Foundation should continue its efforts to build a strategic plan and annual plans. It should pay particular attention to the dynamics that caused so much strife in recent months and consider whether adjustments to these documents would minimize the risk of similar problems. In recent months, a number of staff have expressed concern about frequently shifting strategic goals. A clear strategy can be a vital tool to help staff, various organizations, and numerous volunteers align their efforts and sustain a sense of shared purpose. And a good way to establish alignment is to build in community participation from the beginning: the Foundation knew this in 2010 when it ran the previous process, and the approach has been endorsed in a recent Harvard Business Review paper. The current draft of the organization's strategic plan appears to be a strong step in the right direction.

Recent communication among the Wikimedia volunteer community and staff has been thoughtful and diplomatic. Even when critical, there has been a focus on forward progress and improvement. I am hopeful that this ethos can survive, and that as a movement, we can return to the spirit of collaboration and service that has brought us together.

Pete Forsyth has been a Wikipedia editor since 2006 and runs a Wikipedia training and consulting business, Wiki Strategies. He worked for the Wikimedia Foundation from 2009 to 2011. The views expressed in this editorial are the author's alone and do not reflect any official opinions of this publication. Responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section.

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  • This is a very thoughtful piece, Pete, and I really hope that the current Board of Trustees will engage seriously with your recommendations. I agree that some (but not all) of them should consider resigning to facilitate moving on. Cullen328 Let's discuss it 07:24, 20 March 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • Wikipedia at 15 is not in such bad shape, and tech support has recently been very promising. So let's not allow "internalist" issues to cloud that picture. That said, Pete is correct to point out that governance has now come to the fore. One would have to have close knowledge of the actual content of debates to comment in detail; but let's say the issue is tension between "Silicon Valley" and "community" views of where we are heading. So those tensions should be addressed, by the WMF as non-profit. In terms of institutional relationships, a better understanding of what being taken seriously involves should come high on the list. Both Commons and Wikidata matter there (I can speak for Wikidata from my own outreach work) and deserve full support; but further work needs to be done on Wikisource in order to "have a library", which (to me) seems currently to be a limiting factor for attracting both the science and humanities wings of academia. My point here is that the educational/metadata function of WMF projects has not yet been seen clearly: we are not media in a naive sense, and I include in that caveat the handling of explicitly educational material. I'd be looking in new leadership for folk who get the distinctive merits of what we do and how we do it; and can give a reasoned explanations of both WP:VOTE in the broad context, and the difference between reference and instructional material. Charles Matthews (talk) 09:18, 20 March 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • A particular requirement for the leader of the WMF is working with an exceptionally high percentage of volunteers. Many charities use some volunteers to staff shops, etc, but not many, perhaps, work with such a large corps of experienced volunteers, who contribute such a large percentage of the essential effort needed to keep the show on the road. Pete is absolutely right to emphasize the diversity of the stakeholders, and given the importance of volunteering, the unusually low importance of money in the WMF's case. It might be worth taking a look at the way stakeholders are analysed in systems engineering/requirements engineering, where multiple roles and implicit conflicts are the order of the day. A new ED, briefed in advance about the rare combination of job requirements, might be able to benefit from the outgoing ED's experience. Chiswick Chap (talk) 12:00, 20 March 2016 (UTC)[reply]
    • Thanks all for sharing your thoughts. Cullen, without knowing the internal dynamics of the board, it's tough to know who's responsible for what; but there are so many clues. Of course the whole board shouldn't resign; two of the current trustees were not even on the board from August to January, and one of them voted against Doc James' removal, so I can't see a reason for any of them to consider leaving. It also seems very extreme for the rest to all leave; but I hope they are having some serious internal discussion of who played what role in the various big and costly mistakes. We should keep in mind that neither of the chapters-appointed trustees has sought reappointment, so presumably they will be departing in August -- and that includes the chair. Charles Matthews, I agree that this has not damaged Wikipedia itself, and that the site continues on a good track in spite of the problems. I would characterize the issues mainly as lost opportunity; an organization that is not distracted by secret/fancy visions for the future, or by abysmal internal politics, would be a better partner for the community, and better positioned to help address issues like systemic bias, obstacles to participation, etc. I do think that if the kinds of problems we have seen recently continue, that sooner or later, we will see an existential threat to Wikipedia, from the organization that is supposed to sustain it -- which is a big deal. But I don't think we're there yet, and there is much reason to believe things can turn around. The qualities you name are insightful. Chiswick Chap, yes, the major reliance on volunteers is an important factor -- and it's always worth remembering, this is an odd kind of "volunteering." With other organizations, one typically volunteers for the organization, and takes some direction from staff; but with Wikipedia, most volunteers simply use the platform, more or less at their own discretion, to work toward the mission as they understand it. I'm not sure how much value there would be in debriefing the outgoing ED's experience -- it probably couldn't hurt, but there are also a great many other people who might have stronger, better-informed insights into what worked and what didn't about her approach. -Pete (talk) 19:45, 21 March 2016 (UTC)[reply]





       

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