Studying for exams: How Wikipedia helped me (and so can help you)

May 22, 2007   //   by: Pedro Mac Dowell Innecco   //   Thinking out loud  //  Comments Off on Studying for exams: How Wikipedia helped me (and so can help you)

Yesterday I had my first examination of my MBA programme: Human Resources Management. I don’t plan to talk about all my exams, but since this was my first one, it was quite significant. In particular, I would like to mention how I actually used Wikipedia as a way to help with my studies.

Of course the name Wikipedia raises all alarm bells when talking about research and academic studies. Every lecturer I know has strong feelings against the use of Wikipedia as a source. Use Wikipedia as a reference and bibliography and you are likely to be penalised.

But if used correctly, Wikipedia can help you. In case of studying for my HRM exam, here is how I used it in my favour, in two different ways. It might surprise you.

One class prior to the exam the lecturer told us that the exam would be comprised of four questions, and we must choose to answer two. He briefly mentioned the high-level topic of each question as: Japanese management culture (Japanisation), Industrial Relations, HRM strategy (from an organisation of your choice) and Organisational Culture. I have decided prior to the exam that I would focus on Japanisation and Industrial Relations.

So, this past weekend I have been reading several articles and books on Japanese management, its characteristics, perceived advantages, deficiencies and contrast with western styles of management; and about industry relations theories (unitarism, pluralism and Marxism) and how they compare and contrast.

Japanisation: Reading from Wikipedia

I had a lot of books and academic articles and journals about this subject, so it wasn’t much of a problem for me to study for it. I also had an interesting discussion with a business manager, who did an essay a while ago about the same subject, and she gave me her interest insights on how she compared the Japanese management style with Bushidō – the code of conduct of the samurais. Then I decided to get more fresh ideas about the subject, so I went to read the articles on Wikipedia about management styles, including Japanese management, as well the article about Bushidō.

Now here is the trick with Wikipedia: When reading articles, you must digest their content with a lot discretion. Always check for the sources. You can see the sources for paragraphs and sentences as clickable (i.e.: links) numbers surrounded by square brackets. If you click on such links, it will take you to the bottom of the page and will highlight the appropriate source for you to read it. Here is an example taken from the Bushidō article on Wikipedia.

The core tenets of Bushidō date from as early as the 12th century as demonstrated by the earliest translations of Japanese literature and warrior house codes. Honor codes are still used today.[citation needed] Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Bushidō became formalized into Japanese Feudal Law.[1]

As you can see from the example above there is one claim which says “honor codes are still used today.” Well, says who? What source the author of this sentence used as a source? One should always be careful with such statements, as in research and academics one can’t just get into a conclusion without providing evidence of a research. In this case, this is why another Wikipedia editor added the link [citation needed] just after the sentence (but it is not always that such links are added). If a source is not added, that sentence is likely to be removed in a subsequent edition.

Here is Wikipedia’s view on the matter.

Now if we look at the last sentence “under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Bushidō became formalized into Japanese Feudal Law”; there is a clickable source there as [1]. If you click on it, it will take you to the bottom of the page, where it shows you the source for this claim, which is an article entitled “Japanese Feudal Laws John Carey Hall, The Tokugawa Legislation, (Yokohama, 1910), pp. 286-319.”

So my suggestion is to go read the original source, get the data and process it by yourself. This is particularly important because people can always vandalise articles on Wikipedia. Suppose you must find out what countries are members of the European Union, and someone added Switzerland as an EU member state in a Wikipedia article which you found. Until someone corrects the mistake (or vandalism) that article is compromised. You go and write in your exam that Switzerland is an EU member state and you will lose marks. Tell your lecturer that “you read it on Wikipedia” and it is likely that people will take you for a fool.

Also use common sense when considering the type of the source. If the source is the Harvard Business Review, or The Times, it is probably ok. If the Source is a publication such as News of The World, a free newspaper such as the Metro or The Daily Star, you should think twice before taking anything written on these publications as reliable or serious.

So here is what I did on the question about Japanisation, as far as I recall:

On the question about Japanisation I started with a one paragraph introduction about Japan being the second biggest economy in the world even being so deprived of natural resources, a factor which academics and professionals often assign to Japan’s management style, and how the west studied and tried to implement its Japan’s methods in the west (with mixed results). Then I went on to describe its characteristics, being the three main:

  • Long-term planning: How Japanese sacrifice short-term profit in favour of hundred-year plans focusing on market-share;
  • Permanent employment: How employees look forward to stay in the company until retirement;
  • Collective decision-making: How employees are recruited not necessarily to do a specific tasks but to share overall responsibility for the team’s performance (Hazama’s tug-of-war analogy).

I drilled-down further to talk about Japan’s hierarchical approach of promotion based on seniority, the acceptance of failure as a learning process to take on the next opportunities and the development of company-specific skills and the adoption of Deming’s Quality Circle, which found a fertile ground in Japan due to its strategy of long-term planning and continuous improvement. I made sure I quoted some Ouchi and Hazama in my text, and I also contrasted Hazama with Drucker in their views on teams.

When talking about the decline the Japanese style management, I mentioned that its approach of long-term planning wasn’t compatible with the fast-pace of globalisation, and with the scope of business widening towards more people, competitors and cultures, Japan had to be more reactive to change. And even being as eclectic as they are, they couldn’t cope with the competition and they had to sacrifice long-term planning for short-term profits. The concept of permanent employment was compromised, companies started to opt for short-term contracts and outsourcing, and the concept of promotion through seniority was replaced by promotion by performance. I was yet to talk about discrimination towards women, but unfortunately I ran out of time.

My reading material:

  • Lecturer notes;
  • Japanese Management: A Sun Rising in the West? (Peter B. Smith and Jyuji Misumi);
  • Management and Organisational Behaviour 7th Edition (Laurie J. Mullins).

Industrial Relations: Contributing to Wikipedia

I found this question to be more succinct and straight to the point. I wanted to make sure I get all factual concepts right, so in order to practice and study this subject, I thought it would be a good idea to write an essay about the subject. Then I had a better idea. Instead of simply writing on a piece of paper, I decided to contribute to its related article on Wikipedia. In my opinion this is an excellent way to foster your knowledge of a particular subject. A fellow user quickly joined in an after a while I saw myself having an intersting discussion with someone that really understands the subject.

Now, when contributing to an article you should follow the same rules as you used to read an article. That is: make sure to include your sources!

So here is what I did on the question about Industrial relations, as far as I recall:

Pretty much what I covered in the exam is what I wrote in the Wikipedia’s article, which was a definition of unitarism, pluralism, marxism and how they contrast (in particular in handling trade unions and conflict). But of course, I feel that I have chosen my words better when I wrote the article on Wikipedia (don’t we always?)

My reading material:

  • Lecturer notes;
  • Management and Organisational Behaviour 7th Edition (Laurie J. Mullins).

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