Wikia's People-Powered Engine

Peter Drucker would have loved the idea behind Wikipedia's brand new search site: The computer is merely a tool, humans are the brains that make it work

As I sat down to work on this column, I couldn't help but feel as if I should be lending my voice to the "Wikia Search stinks" chorus. After all, the Internet search engine, rolled out this month by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, didn't seem to be doing much to enhance the standing of my organization, the Drucker Institute.

When I typed our name into the search field, I got reasonably close: The top result that popped up was the Web site for our affiliate, the Peter F. Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management. But our own site was nowhere to be found.

After sifting through the first 100 returns—including off-the-mark links to an organization of jewelry appraisers, a group of Scrabble enthusiasts from Canada, violinist Eugene Drucker, and the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce—without seeing, I gave up. (On Google (GOOG), by contrast, we were in our usual spot: No. 1 on the list.) No wonder Wales has been upbraided across the blogosphere. "Wikia Search Is a Complete Letdown," howled the headline on At, the review was just as blunt, characterizing Wikia's offering as "crappy."

Still, I can't help but think the man whose ideas my institute is advancing, Peter Drucker, would have loved what Wales is attempting: having people play more of a role, and computers less of one, when it comes to interpreting information and spreading knowledge.

Will User Input Improve Search?

"The strength of the computer lies in its being a logic machine," Drucker wrote in The Effective Executive, first published in 1967. "It does…what it is programmed to do. This makes it fast and precise. It also makes it a total moron; for logic is essentially stupid. It is doing the simple and obvious. The human being, by contrast, is not logical; he is perceptual. This means that he is slow and sloppy. But he is also bright and has insight. The human being can adapt; that is, he can infer from scanty information or from no information at all what the total picture might be like. He can remember a great many things nobody has programmed."

Wales's vision is to improve the potency, accuracy, and ingenuity of his search tool over time largely through the input of users, as opposed to the algorithms that drive searches on Google, Yahoo! (YHOO), and Microsoft (MSFT). There are several ways folks can participate in the process, including by rating search results on a five-star system (complete with a note about why a particular link received the score it did). They can also write "mini-articles" to discuss results in an open-ended forum.

Wales has acknowledged this won't happen overnight. It's going to take time, he said, "for the humans to come in and start building" these functions, he told TechCrunch. Many are skeptical—and rightly so—that Wales's effort will ever snatch meaningful market share from Google, home to nearly 60% of all Internet searches in the U.S., according to Nielsen/Net Ratings. (Its closest rival, Yahoo, accounts for about 18%.) Nevertheless, Wales's instincts about what is needed in the world of search (and, indeed, across many areas of the high-tech universe) are right on, at least from Drucker's perspective.

Birth of the Knowledge Worker

Long before most anyone else had begun to glimpse it, Drucker recognized we were in the midst of a historic transformation. He came to call the age we had entered the "post-capitalist society"—an era in which labor, land, and capital are less important and "The main producers of wealth have become information and knowledge." The denizens of this new world are, of course, "knowledge workers"—a term Drucker coined in 1959.

But Drucker wasn't always so enamored of the way knowledge was being cultivated. For one thing, he suggested information technology was, by and large, too focused on the "T"—that is, the collection, storage, transmission, and presentation of data—and not focused enough on the nature of the "I." As he put it, "What is the meaning of the information? What is the purpose?"

What can get at those questions, he wrote in 1999's Management Challenges for the 21st Century, is not "more data, more technology, more speed." What's required is to step back and figure out what kind of information would best help tackle the task at hand—a determination in which living, breathing creatures have a clear advantage over cold calculations.

People Connect the Dots

Drucker also taught that those using information should assume active roles in shaping it. "Only individual knowledge workers…can convert data into information," he counseled. "And only individual knowledge workers…can decide how to organize their information so that it becomes their key to effective action." To leave it to the technology wizards, in other words, is a big mistake.

Finally, humans may well be better equipped than computers to do something else Drucker deemed crucial: connect the dots between highly specialized disciplines or, as he described it, "to mobilize the multiple knowledges that we posses."

Whether Wikia can do all this in a search context remains to be seen. Certainly it has a long way to go. And yet by early this week, my institute's Web site had magically soared to the second slot on the list, evidently propelled there by the thing Drucker believed in most: people power.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.