Models and Theories in Human-Computer Interaction/Input-process-output framework and the collaborative wiki platform

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The Wikibook, much like its related sibling, Wikipedia.org, which are instances of the Wikimedia platform, promote knowledge sharing on specific topics among groups of individuals who have a common interest. This is done through the use of specifically designated content areas for specific functions. For example, user pages are specifically designed for people to communicate with individual users, while article pages are specifically designed for communicating information related to the specific articles, encouraging group communication around a topic of interest. By examining the Wikibooks platform through the lens of the input-process-output model, one can better ascertain whether or not the platform succeeds at its goal of providing a knowledge-sharing platform for interested parties to consume, and its attempts to overcome the very difficult obstacle of not being in a face-to-face synchronous communication context.

The “input” part of the framework focuses on the things that are required for initiating and sustaining the interaction processes that yield outcomes: people, tasks and technology. These have both direct and indirect impacts on group effectiveness. According to the research, the diversity of people involved in a group can be both a blessing and a curse. For a Wiki community that has a focused topic area where a well-represented diversity of expertise exists to contribute to the conversation, this can be a blessing. Content would be plentiful and rich with different perspectives, adding value, achieving synergistic outcomes. But the same diverse set of people within a community can also foster strong opinions and disagreement, especially if they have a different set of values or beliefs (Pelled, Eisenhardt, & Xin, 1999). The Wikibook has content areas like Policies & Guidelines to assist in moderating conflict. Rules like “Respect other contributors” are intended to quell the fires of passionate contributors who might want to post strong dissent over someone else’s work. Another key mediator of conflict within the Wiki is the use of references at the bottom of each wiki page. This ensures that the information being presented has sufficient evidence to back it up adding credibility to the individual contributor as well as the community as a whole.

One major drawback to the wiki is the lack of context (i.e. colocation) that you lose when you are not in the same room and other conversations are going on that might promote new ideas and thoughts about a topic. That loss of spontaneity and creative energy is lost with the asynchronous Wiki information flow. It is easier to take things out of context when members are not in the same space— aspects like tone and body language are lost in a wiki. Research has shown that distributed groups have more difficulty coordinating amongst one another and forming successful working relationships than colocated ones (Cramton, 2001). The Wiki platform attempts to address this through user pages where contributors can start discussions with fellow contributors. If these pages have privacy options where contributors can have private discussions then this might foster better working relationships amongst contributors since contributors may feel more comfortable only speaking with individuals about specific concerns rather than a whole group.

The "interaction process” part of the model incorporates communication among group members. The research suggests that the level of uncertainty of a task factors greatly in determining whether a certain technology is appropriate for the group to use (Galbraith, 1977). For simple tasks, less connectedness (e.g. information can flow through one individual to others rather than through many to others) is required among group members to be effective, while for more complex problem-solving tasks, having more communication and connections among group members is more effective. This insight probably stands to be the core benefit of the Wikibook: an open platform where just about anyone can contribute their expertise on specific topics that require a high level of depth and insight; all contributors are connected amongst one another via the Wiki pages. Information flows throughout the entire community of contributors and readers, unfettered by any one single individual.

The “outputs” (or outcomes) part of the model is about production outcomes. Research has demonstrated that “the whole” is indeed “greater than the sum of its parts.” Groups can be more effective than individuals because of synergy and aggregation. The variety of skills and knowledge (i.e. aggregation) that each member brings to the team can be highly additive contributing to the overall positive outcome and effectiveness (i.e. synergy) of a project more so than the individuals on their own could do. This suggests that the specific Wikibook pages that are created have to be very focused on a topic (to draw in the right kind of contributors with the respective expertise) and be highly inclusive of individuals across the many required disciplines to make the content on the Wiki be meaningful and effective for its audience.

But one place where a Wikibook could potentially fall short is with what the framework calls “group maintenance and member support” (another component within “outputs”). Not only does the Wiki community produce an insightful body of knowledge for others to consume, but they also have to maintain it on an ongoing basis ensuring its accurate and up to date, as well as support one another. The Wikibook has open content areas like user pages for contributors to continue their discussions and maintain support. But because of the earlier research on collocation of groups being more effective than distributed ones, I would question the effectiveness of these pages to keep contributors engaged with the content and with one another in a long-term sustaining manner, the way humans would do with one another in face-to-face interaction. I would posit that a more embodied experience where contributors can not only author pages but pipe in video communication with other members in real-time could potentially go a long way to keeping members engaged with each other and the content they manage.

While the Wikibook collaborative platform has its bright spots in supporting aspects of the input-process-output framework (e.g. incorporating a diversity of opinions and perspectives due to its open nature), it also has its potential drawbacks given that it is an asynchronous tool that can be taken in any context (e.g. the lack of collocation) and its inability to provide adequate tools to foster effective group maintenance and member support.