The future of the internet and your organization

Explore the future of the internet in this Q&A with Sue Gardner, former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. She also shares what to expect in her keynote at The ONE 2016.

Sue Gardner is the former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, a digital expert and passionate advocate of open technology and leadership. She will be speaking at The ONE National Conference 2016, delivering a keynote on how breakthroughs in communication technologies shape our world and the future of the internet.

You’re known for your commitment to preserving a free and open internet. Why is this so important today as online media continues to grow and change?

The internet is the most important communications breakthrough in living memory – much more important than radio, TV or the telephone. It enables ordinary people to communicate with each other in real time, from anywhere in the world, whenever we want. It collapses geography and erases borders. And it's ushered in a golden age of access to information: the average person today has easy access to more information than ever before in human history.

However, if we take that for granted, we risk losing it. And to a certain degree that's what's happening. In some countries the internet is heavily censored; in other parts of the world, people's internet experience is actively shaped by commercial forces, determining what you can buy and the entertainment choices you have. 

The internet is where everyone turns first to find what they’re looking for – information, ideas, community, education, products and services. What’s your advice for businesses, not-for-profits, governments and individuals that want to make positive contributions?

Share everything. Put in on Wikipedia or on your own site. Free your data, your research, your publications. Just publish it all.

Here's a small story about the impact of this kind of sharing. One of the first things I did when I arrived at the Wikimedia Foundation back in 2007 was develop a travel policy, because we didn't have one. We posted all of our stuff online unless there was some privacy-related reason not to, so I put the new policy on our website.

Years later, I still run into people saying, "I had to write a travel policy for work. I googled for examples and I found yours." And then they’ll share with me how they adapted that policy for their own organization.

There was no competitive advantage in us keeping our policy private and there was nothing special or particularly interesting about it either, but posting it online probably saved a couple of thousand people-hours – making it possible for others to adapt our policy rather than building their own from scratch.

How did your experience at the helm of the Wikimedia Foundation develop your approach to the demands of executive management and leadership?

In my early career at the CBC, I developed a strong bias in favor of openness and collaboration because that's what works with journalists. Even if command-and-control is your natural inclination, it doesn’t work very well: everyone gets a lot further with influence and persuasion and soft power.

So when I joined Wikimedia I already had that basic approach under my belt, but I learned to apply it at a much greater scale. I was working with people from around the world, in different time zones, many of whom did not speak English as their first language. That meant a lot of text because real-time interactions weren’t always possible. It also meant paring down my communications with material that could be confusing to different audiences, like jokes and wordplay and metaphors or pop culture references.

That approach was essential at Wikipedia but I think it works well anywhere.

The digital landscape not only intersects with, but is deeply connected to public interest – a value that’s at the heart of our organization and the accounting profession. How can new developments in the tech world help CPAs become better leaders and global citizens?

Our culture has built some terrific institutions with very admirable public service values. I see many of those institutions – like libraries, schools and large not-for-profits – struggling with how to interpret their values in this new context. What they need to do instead is reimagine how those values manifest today.

The tech industry, for the most part, has no idea what its values are. The gap between its rhetoric and the reality is kind of laughable. Tech companies are constantly claiming to inspire us, to create new opportunities, to make the world a dramatically better place… but what they are actually doing, as we joke in the Bay Area, is making apps that do for people what their moms used to: bring you lunch, pick up your dry cleaning, deliver your groceries. That is not transformative; it's just convenient.

To me, it’s not about how much tech can do for people interested in public service, but rather how can we infuse more public service values into tech.

What are the biggest challenges that organizations face when trying to create a strong and thoughtful global strategy?

There are so many. At Wikimedia we used to worry a lot about the fast-changing legal landscape. Countries like Brazil and India are so volatile from a legal perspective: that creates a lot of risk and can be expensive. There are a lot of soft challenges related to communications too.

You have to be prepared to be wrong in ways you could never have anticipated, and willing to course-correct or just bail entirely on what you had planned. It is very difficult.

What are you most looking forward to discussing in your keynote address at The ONE National Conference this September? What can attendees look forward to learning about the future of the internet and the impact of good governance?

I think we're really at a crossroads with the internet. The internet has unleashed a whole range of social forces that are enabling a new level of empathy and understanding among people who are wildly different from each other – and at the same time, we are increasingly polarized. This phenomenon is playing out so clearly in the current U.S. presidential election campaign. I am really looking forward to talking in Vancouver about that.

I'm also looking forward to hearing people's questions. That’s my favorite part of any talk. I like to hear about the kinds of things people are interested in and thinking about.

Register for The ONE National Conference 2016 from September 19-20, 2016 in Vancouver and hear Sue speak live about the future of the internet and what open media means for you and your organization.