Strategy and controversy, part 2

It’s been a busy time at Wikimedia Foundation HQ since my first post in this series, summarising the several simultaneous controversies and attempting to draw a coherent connecting-line between them. The most visible change is Arnnon Geshuri agreeing to vacate his appointed seat on the WMF Board of Trustees after sustained pressure; including a community-petition, several former Board members speaking out, and mainstream media attention – as summarised in The Signpost. This departure is notwithstanding the entirely unconventional act of Silicon Valley native Guy Kawasaki in voting against the petition to the Board despite the fact that he’s on the Board and that it was effectively his first public action relating to Wikimedia since receiving that appointment – as I described on Meta.

Although this news about Geshuri was well received, I feel that this controversy became the flash point because it was easily definable, and had a binary decision associated with it – go or stay. Most problems aren’t so neatly resolvable. Hopefully then, the fact that it is mostly resolved (pending the now highly sensitive task of finding his replacement) should allow focus to be drawn back to more fundamental issues of leadership.

Earlier this month The Signpost published details from the internal WMF staff survey:

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.

A week later the head of the HR department Boryana Dineva – the person with arguably the most difficult job at the WMF right now – gave a summary of that survey in the publicly recorded monthly metrics meeting – starting at 42 minutes in:

Notice the complete absence of mention of the part of the survey which was highlighted by the Signpost? You’re not the only one. In the following Q&A came a question from Frances Hocutt, later paraphased on-wiki by Aaron Halfaker – “Why are we not speaking clearly about the most concerning results of the engagement survey? “. Starting at 56 minutes in:

It is my supposition that the extremely low confidence in senior leadership among the staff including by the “C-Levels” is directly connected to both:

  1. a lack of clarity in the organisation’s strategic direction following a long period since the previous strategy expired and several false-starts (such as the 2-question survey), leading to sudden and unexplained departmental re-organisations, and  delays in the current process.
  2. the organisation’s recent apparent failures to abide by its own organisation Values. Notably in this case, the values of “independence”, “diversity”, and “transparency”.

Anne Clin – better known to Wikimedians as Risker – neatly tied these two threads together earlier this month in her keynote to the WMF annual all-staff meeting. In a speech entitled “Keep your eye on the Mission” she stated:

Wikimedia watchers have known for quite a while that the Foundation has decided that search and discovery should be a strategic priority. It’s not clear on what this decision has been based, although one could shoe-horn it into the mission under disseminating information effectively and globally. It wasn’t something that was fleshed out during the 2015 Strategy community consultation a year ago, and it wasn’t discussed in the Call to Action. The recent announcement about the Knight Foundation grant tells us it is for short-term funding to research and prototype improvements to how people “discover” information on Wikimedia projects. No doubt Search and Discovery, which already has a large number of talented staff affiliated with it, will show up near the top of proposed strategic priorities next week when they are announced to the community – and will be assigned a sizeable chunk of the 2016-17 budget. The results of the Knight Foundation funded research probably won’t be available early enough to use it for budgeting purposes.

This is the only picture I can find of that speech – Anne at the lectern discussing “the board” 🙂

Arguably, she actually got that prediction wrong. Of 18 different approaches identified in the now-public strategic planning consultation process only one of them seems directly related to the search and discovery team’s work: “Explore ways to scale machine-generated, machine-verified and machine-assisted content“. It is also literally the last of the 18 topics listed (6 in each of reach, communities and knowledge) and is softened with the verb “explore” (rather than other items which have firmer targets to “increase”, “provide”, etc.). This quasi-hidden element of the strategy therefore invites the question – if this is such a small part of the documented strategy, why is “Discovery” receiving such disproportionate staffing, funding, attention? All of the projects listed on their portal and their three year plan are desirable and welcome, but the team is clearly staffed-up in preparation for significantly more ambitious efforts.

Anne again:

This mission statement was last revised in November 2012 – it is incorporated into the bylaws of the Wikimedia Foundation. And this revision of the mission statement occurred shortly after what many of us remember as the “narrowing focus” decision. Notice what isn’t included in the mission statement:

Not a word about the Wikimedia Foundation being a “tech and grantmaking organization”. While it is quite true that the bulk of the budget is directly linked to these two areas, the Board continues to recognize that the primary mission is dissemination of educational material, not technology or grants….

…Engineering – or as it is now called, “Product”, had three significant objectives set for it back in late 2012: develop Visual Editor, develop Mobile, and make a significant dent in the longstanding technical debt. The first two have come a long way – not without hiccups, but there’s been major progress. And there has been some work on the technical debt – HHVM being only one significant example. But the MediaWiki core is still full of crufty code, moribund and unloved extensions, and experiments that went nowhere. That’s not improving significantly; in fact, we’re seeing the technical debt start to build as new extensions are added that lose their support when someone changes teams or they leave the organization. Volunteer-managed extensions and tools suffer entropy when the volunteer developer moves on, and there’s no plan to effectively deprecate the software or to properly integrate and support it. There’s no obvious plan to maintain and improve the core infrastructure; instead the talk is all of new extensions, new PRODUCTS. From the outside, it looks like the Foundation is busy building detours instead of fixing the potholes in the highways.

It is my understanding that the original grant request to the Knight Foundation was MUCH larger than the $250,000 actually received. Jimmy Wales declared that concerns about the details of this grant are a “red herring” and that ousted Board member James Heilman’s concerns about transparency are “utter fucking bullshit” (causing James to announce he will soon be providing proof of his claims). Hopefully the grant agreement itself will be published soon, as Jimmy implied, so we can actually know what it is that has been promised.

It is worth noting that the “Call to action” mentioned above was part of the mid-2015 to mid-2016 Annual Plan, but that the risk assessment component of that plan was only published this week. Presumably this was written at the time but unintentionally left-off the final publication. Nevertheless, it includes some rather ironic statements when read in hindsight:

Risk: Failure to create a strong, consistent values­ based work culture could cause valued staff to leave.

Mitigation strategies:

  • Establish initiatives that support our commitment to diversity and creating spaces for constructive, direct and honest communications.
  • Communicate and listen effectively with staff on values and initiatives undertaken.

Significantly, the WMF’s Statement of Purpose as described in its own bylaws, states that it will perform its mission “In coordination with a network of individual volunteers and our independent movement organizations, including recognized Chapters, Thematic Organizations, User Groups, and Partners”. This corresponds to the last of the official organisation Values: “Our community is our biggest asset”. At its meeting this weekend, the Board will have to determine whether the current executive leadership can demonstrate adherence to these avowed values – particularly coordination and transparency of its vision to the community and the staff – and is fit to deliver this latest strategy process.

[The first post in this Montgomerology* series “Strategy and Controversy” was published on January 8.]

Edit: Within the hour of publishing this blogpost, and one day before the board meeting, a “background on the Knowledge Engine grant” has now been published on Lila’s talkpage.

*Montgomerology: The pseudo-science of interpretation of meaning in signals emanating from the WMF headquarters at New Montgomerology St., San Francisco. cf. Vaticanology or Kremlinology.

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7 Responses to Strategy and controversy, part 2

  1. metasj says:

    Liam – your writing style and focus keep improving. Thank you.

  2. Oliver Keyes says:

    So, as someone _on_ the search and discovery team, what you describe is not what I experience. I would argue we are *adequately* staffed for the things we are committed to. And that differs from prior projects and teams where we have been inadequately staffed but expected to do the work anyway.

    As an example; we have two data analysts. That’s a lot by WMF standards. It’s tiny by anyone else’s standards, and for us it doesn’t mean we’re kicking off some massive machine learning/natural language processing platform: it means we can actually dedicate one person to the search team and one person to the portal team and run a test every 1-2 weeks.

    I can’t speak for any of the grants or any of that stuff. And I agree that the transparency around them is currently inadequate. But the Search and Discovery team is being perceived as a big, ED-driven, tip-of-the-iceberg project – analogous to the education programme many years back – and to be perfectly honest it’s really not. We are not that well-resourced, we are not tremendously long-visioned, and this is deliberate. We don’t want to commit to some big grandiose plan to fix everything, because those don’t work. We want to build small features and improvements that collectively add up to fixing…at least a *lot* of things.

    This is not to say that the concerns here are not valid; they are. I would like to see more transparency from senior leadership about the grants and related topics. It’s simply to say that the S&D team is really not the source of the problems here.

    • wittylama says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Oliver. You’re right that the size of the team is not over-staffed for the tasks that are set for it. Moreover, the tasks on the published workplan are quite useful things. The point I’m trying to make, not necessarily clearly, is that the team is *disproportionately* staffed, funded, given-attention, relative to the many and various other activities of the WMF. Like you say, this level is actually “adequate” for the tasks set for it which is very unusual in WMF history. It would be nice if all the WMF teams were adequately resourced, and its lucky for you that your team is. Ideally Discovery would not be unique in being sufficiently resources, but instead all the othe teams would be brought up to its standard (rather than it being brought back down). But that still leaves the question of “Why?” is this team being resourced disproportionately – above everything else – that it is arguably the first team in the history of WMF to feel that way?

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  4. Frances Hocutt says:

    Thank you very much for this post, Liam, and particularly for sharing from Risker’s cogent, incisive, and challenging speech. I’d never seen or heard of a standing ovation for an all-hands opening keynote before this one. It was truly a call to remember and abide by Wikimedia’s stated values, and I do believe we need that reminder.

    Also thank you for returning to the question I asked at the metrics meeting. I was terrified to ask it, but I saw more and more dismayed and confused responses around me as the presentation went on and I knew that I was not the only one wondering.

    • wittylama says:

      Glad you saw this Frances 🙂
      Yes, I was watching the livestream of the metrics meeting at the time and could hear the apprehension in your voice!

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