Finding God’s Particle

Sometime tomorrow, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research will switch on their Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and smash sub-atomic particles together in the hopes of finding “God’s Particle,” the missing matter that in theory expains the beginning of time and the Big Bang.

Now aside from being a $5.3 billion, 27-kilometre underground tunnel, the Large Hadron Collider is also a partial product of an innovative and collaborative environment supported by the use of wikis. Not surprising given CERN was home to Tim Berners-Lee and the invention of the Web. The link between the origins of the Web and the wiki are strong, given that (according to Berners-Lee), “the idea behind the Web was not just that it should be a big browsing medium. The idea was that everybody would be putting their ideas in, as well as taking them out.”

Jump ahead two decades and today CERN employs approximately 3,500 people with a broader membership of partners increasing the total to 10,000 researchers and scientists across 500 institutes in 56 countries, a heck of a network.

About a year ago, Vincenzo Cammarata, a graduate student at the University of Lugano, emailed me a copy of his Masters thesis (Wikibility of Innovation Oriented Workplaces) which takes an in-depth look at CERN and its collaborative activities. He notes, “CERN can be defined as the hub of an enormous Social Network: for its large number of members, for the knowledge that is owned inside of each silo, and for the big need for collaboration and subsequently knowledge transfer.” He dives into an analysis of how wikis have supported the LHC project for knowledge management and knowledge transfer across its global network, as well as for software and network development. CERN users note that the use of wikis significantly increased the quantity of materials shared and, more important, the quality of final outputs. Not a small consideration given the investments being made, and the outputs desired. Evidently, there are also definite limits to the usefulness of the wiki, and users make note of its use to supplement rather than replace other forms of communication.

And so regardless of the outcome of tomorrow’s sub-atomic particle smashup, the lessons CERN offers regarding the impact of collaborative tools and collaboratve activity are pretty impressive. Their ability to bridge global and organizational divides to hasten the development of frameworks around which the LHC was built should in theory yield not only significant time and cost savings but more importantly should help shed light on where we came. No small feat.

You can read the CERN case study and Wibility of Innovation Oriented Environments thesis here, thanks Vincenzo!

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