News and notes
The WMF's age of discontent
The Wikimedia Foundation's Board of Trustees voted last week to remove community-appointed trustee James Heilman (Doc James), an unprecedented action that has created controversy in the movement. The aftermath of the event has seen intense speculation on the institutional state of the Wikimedia Foundation—in particular the role of the community in the Foundation's vision for the future. These tensions have been heightened not just by continuing commentary on the circumstances of the removal, but by the unrelated announcement of the appointment of two new board trustees with strong Silicon Valley backgrounds.
Fallout from the Heilman removal
A week after the announcement of Heilman’s removal the Board released an FAQ on the matter
. The statement includes a claim that Heilman's fellow trustees "lacked sufficient confidence in his discretion, judgment, and ability to maintain confidential Board information about the Wikimedia Foundation governance activities"; notably, the first two claims ("discretion" and "judgment") are widely construed. The Signpost
contacted Heilman for a reaction to the statement. He said: "This is simply an attempt to distract people from the underlying issues, and to discredit me." What he sees as a personal attack, he believes, is consistent with the way he has been treated during the more recent part of his tenure as a trustee, during which he said he was called "a troll" by two different people behind closed doors.
It is now clear that the move against Heilman had been planned for some time. Given the long lead-time, others have queried the cohesiveness of the Board's strategy surrounding the meeting called to dismiss him, which apparently failed to: (1) make a clear decision on whether the removal resolution would be "with" or "without cause", per the legal distinction in the relevant law of the state of Florida (the resolution text itself did not contain a legal cause, yet Jimmy Wales has since stated that the removal was indeed "for cause"); (2) prepare beforehand a public announcement for release immediately after the meeting, despite the likelihood that Heilman would announce his removal soon after his expulsion from the meeting; or (3) make a decision on filling the vacant seat, instead stating in an announcement soon after that "we will reach out to the 2015 election committee ... to discuss our options, and will keep you informed as we determine next steps."
New Board-appointed trustees have ties to Silicon Valley
In a move that, though not directly related to Heilman's departure, seems poorly timed, the Board has announced the appointment of two new trustees: Kelly Battles and Arnnon Geshuri. Kelly is a veteran technical manager whose credentials stem from financial leadership positions at firms such as IronPort and Hewlett Packard; Arnnon brings experience in human resources from experience at firms such as Tesla and E*TRADE. Trustee Dariusz Jemielniak has written that the selections came after "wide input from different stakeholders." In the announcing blog post, WMF executive director Lila Tretikov states that the appointments "bring a deep commitment to making knowledge more freely available for people around the world."
However, the Signpost
is aware of an online expression of discontent from one WMF staffer with the Board's selection. In addition, Liam Wyatt (Wittylama
), community-selected member of the WMF Funds Dissemination Committee
, has questioned
what these appointments bring to the overall diversity of the Board: "I've always believed that Wikimedia is an education charity that happens to exist in a technology field. ... But these appointments indicate the Board and WMF Executive believe Wikimedia is a technology charity that happens to exist in the education field."
This brings the number of trustees with ties to Google up to five, which is half of the Board:
- Jimmy Wales, who has served as a member of Google's "Advisory Council"
- Denny Vrandečić, who is a Google employee
- Guy Kawasaki, who has served as special advisor to the CEO of the Motorola business unit of Google
- Kelly Battles of Bracket Computing, which partners with Google Cloud Platform
- Arnnon Geshuri, who served as senior director of HR and Staffing at Google
WMF staff morale
It is becoming impossible to ignore the increasing anxiety among many Foundation staff over the last few months of 2015. This may not be entirely separate from the implications of the Heilman removal, since we understand that a specific complaint against Heilman by other trustees concerned his contact with disgruntled staff. Transparency appears to be a flashpoint in both the dismissal and low staff morale.
The Signpost contacted around ten staff members to seek their views on where the balance should be drawn between unfettered transparency and strategic secrecy for a leader of the free culture movement; what the causes are of the rapidly changing work environment at the organization; and what is necessary to improve project continuity and success. At this point we should say that not one source—whether those we reached out to or several others who initiated contact with us—would agree to be named, although some provided on-the-record information anonymously.
A key issue has been the WMF's annual evaluation of employee engagement, conducted and analyzed by a third-party consultant in late 2015. The results were made available on an internal office wiki, and it is now public knowledge that an internal discussion among staff has begun about making the survey public. As of publication, more than two dozen staff members have spoken in favor of releasing the survey as soon as possible "with no dissenting voices". The Signpost has been apprised of the results by one of their number. We understand that there was a healthy 93% response rate among some 240 staff. While numbers approached 90% for pride in working at the WMF and confidence in line managers, the responses to four propositions may raise eyebrows:
- Senior leadership at Wikimedia have communicated a vision that motivates me: 7% agree
- Senior leadership at Wikimedia keep people informed about what is happening: 7% agree
- I have confidence in senior leadership at Wikimedia: 10% agree
- Senior leadership effectively directs resources (funding, people and effort) towards the Foundation's goals: 10% agree
The Signpost has been informed that among the "C-levels" (members of the executive), only one has confidence in senior leadership.
It is unclear exactly what combination of factors underlie the discontent among staff, but we are aware that there has been internal controversy about recent moves to allocate significant resources to the Discovery unit in the second half of 2015. This unit is heavily involved in the development of what is called the knowledge engine. John Vandenberg, a member of the editing community and a volunteer developer, told the Signpost:
||The knowledge engine is a good move, one direction in which the Foundation should be going. This will take our supporting technology to a higher level. It’s not massively hard to develop these days, and it’s appropriate that we do it to provide our readers with advanced "question-and-answer" technology. It’s unclear whether or to what extent it might reduce the number of visitors who seriously read through whole articles, and this might cause concern among editors; but I note that the heavy use of mobile devices is almost certainly doing that now.
The recent shifting of resources towards knowledge discovery may also leave many staff feeling that their department won't receive the resourcing that they believe it needs. This could be contributing to a general dissatisfaction with management; but this is the cost of running an organization in a fast-moving tech environment, and the move away from early and total transparency might be rooted in a belief at the top that some staff and parts of the editing community may react badly to change.
Vandenberg added that we seem to be witnessing a sharpening of the tension between two quite different approaches to achieving professionalism—a tension that may be unique to the Wikimedia movement. On the one hand, he said, the editorial community has developed a hugely successful process of open collaboration, based on incremental improvements. On the other hand, paid staff in any large organization achieve professional outcomes through hiding their incremental improvements in favor of a final product. There lies one basis for the clash between cultures of transparency and secrecy that we now see surrounding the Heilman dismissal.
Wikimania 2016 submissions open: Wikimania 2016 in Esino Lario will take place from 21 to 28 June 2016. As this is somewhat earlier in the year than past conferences, the submission periods for proposals and scholarship applications have overlapped the winter holiday period, and the deadlines, placed much earlier in the calendar than in years past, are approaching fast. Please note the following key dates:
- Call for proposals opened: 11 December 2015
- Deadline for submitting proposals: 17 January 2016
- Notification of acceptance: 27 January 2016
- Scholarship applications opened: 5 December 2015
- Deadline for applying for scholarships: 9 January 2016 23:59 UTC
For further details, see Submissions and Scholarships on the Wikimania 2016 website. AK
Knight Foundation grant: a "Knowledge Engine": On 6 January, the Knight Foundation, a long-time benefactor for the Wikimedia cause, published a blog-post by WMF vice-president of product Wes Moran, titled "Exploring how people discover knowledge on Wikipedia and its sister projects". This was followed by a
Knight Foundation press release announcing that
||The Wikimedia Foundation will launch a new project to explore ways to make the search and discovery of high quality, trustworthy information on Wikipedia more accessible and open with $250,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Funding will support an investigation of search and browsing on Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects, with the goal of improving how people explore and acquire information.
A Wikimedia blog post appeared as well, titled Wikimedia Foundation to explore new ways to search and discover reliable, relevant, free information with $250,000 from Knight Foundation, along with a press release, both featuring a link to a new, dedicated Knight FAQ page set up on MediaWiki. AK
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