MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel with a story about a new how-to business book.
It's called "We Are Smarter than Me." And it's not an ordinary business book. It's the first to be written by a Wiki, an online community of writers. Anyone can participate. The project is backed by two of the biggest names in business education: Wharton and MIT.
NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.
WENDY KAUFMAN: The project's creators are the first to admit that asking tens of thousands of people to write and edit a single book is a bit crazy, especially since contributors don't have to be academics or corporate managers or anyone else with a title. They just have to have something to say.
Wharton Vice Dean Jon Spector says the idea behind the Wiki is simple and is conveyed in the title, "We Are Smarter than Me."
Mr. JON SPECTOR (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania): Collectively, hundreds or thousands of people have more information and might come collectively to more insight than any one person can. And the question really is - and that's what our experiment is about - is can they synthesize across that span of knowledge? That greater span of knowledge to come to a set of conclusions that are more insightful than the expert.
KAUFMAN: The project is inspired in part by the open-source software movement and by the success of Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia largely written and edited by its users. The promoters of "We Are Smarter" are hoping that they, too, can harness the online community and produce a book about how to do that in business.
Spector says among the proposed chapters in the book is one on how to manage in the new environment.
Mr. SPECTOR: In other words, a company that's thinking about using community to price its products or to develop new products, how does a company that wants to do that - and is doing it - how do they organize and manage themselves? Because you're losing quite a bit of control to the community. So what do you do?
KAUFMAN: The Wiki's promoters have written one or two pages with some case studies to begin each chapter. In the research chapter, for example, they write about an Australian beermaker who set up a Web site to find out what people wanted in a beer. Within weeks, thousands had expressed their preferences in style, color, alcohol content, even the shape of the bottle. Today the beermaker has 50,000 customers.
The Wiki project hopes to get many more real-world stories, but how exactly is this supposed to work?
Mr. BARRY LIBERT (Shared Insights): There's an invitation, e-mail invitations, says, come to this book Wiki.
KAUFMAN: Barry Libert, CEO of a company called Shared Insights who came up with the idea for the Wiki, says more than 1,000 people have already signed up to participate.
Mr. LIBERT: Most people started discussions. They immediately go on and say, you know, I either like something about what you're doing here or I don't. And if you give people the right to have a voice, they'll say, I'd like to change something. That's their first inclination. I'd like to change this chapter. I'd like to have new graphics.
KAUFMAN: Many more opinions are likely forthcoming. A million people are about to get invitations to join in. But will it work? Adrian Wooldridge, Washington bureau chief of The Economist magazine and co-author of the book, "Witch Doctor: A Harsh Look at Management Gurus and Management Books," is skeptical about the entire project.
Mr. ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE (The Economist): Wikis work very well when they're simply collecting and compiling information, subtle information about things. But when it comes to something that requires assisting, an interpretation, An editorial voice, it simply doesn't work. If you have a book that compiles clashing opinions, what you get is a cacophony. And what you get is confusion. You don't get any clarity.
KAUFMAN: "We Are Smarter's" promoters know their project could turn to chaos. They've tried to anticipate problems. For example, there's a project manager, along with fact checkers and ghostwriters who will clean up the copy. Still, they are in uncharted territory. Again, Wharton's John Spector.
Mr. SPECTOR: You can't put the genie back in the bottle. And it's not exactly clear what we've gotten ourselves into. But I think no matter how it turns out, I think we're going to learn something very valuable about community and about how businesses operate.
KAUFMAN: By this time next year the international publishing giant Pearson, which is essentially underwriting this project, hopes to have a 120-page book that would sell for $25.99. Should there be profits, they will go to charities chosen by the book's authors.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.
SIEGEL: And if you want to learn more about the project or add your comments, you'll find a link at our Web site, NPR.org.
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