One of the most defining challenges facing tax directors, their boards and their organizations relates to information. Indeed, today’s tax directors face an unyielding torrent of real-time data – whether that be external or internal, structured or unstructured, financial or non-financial – that must be analyzed, absorbed and then communicated back out to the board, tax authorities and stakeholders.
For the final Hub session, participants in KPMG’s EMEA Tax Summit heard from Jimmy Wales, the founder of the online encyclopedia website Wikipedia. In his keynote address, Mr. Wales provided a high level overview of the Wikipedia organization and shared some of the challenges that this non-profit, open-sourced charitable organization faces from an operational and cultural perspective.
Mr. Wales noted that his organization reflected some of the challenges facing today’s business leaders: how to build trust with a community and the public, how to identify what information is useful and what is only adding complexity to day-to-day business operations and how to create robust governance frameworks within a decentralized organization while still delivering the freedom for local teams to respond to local realities.
Building trust within the community was particularly important, Mr. Wales noted. “If you think about the original concept of Wikipedia – let’s open up the website and let everyone edit and somehow it will become an encyclopedia that everyone wants to use – you would think that was crazy. It seems impossible,” mused Mr. Wales. “But what you have to understand is that there are steps in between and they are the community building process and the things that we do within the community that then help guide our work and our principles.”
Having taken a poll of how many audience members had ever edited an article on Wikipedia – and finding the numbers to be disproportionality low to average society – Mr. Wales implored tax experts to become more involved. “We need more tax information so I think that everyone here should edit on Wikipedia,” he said.
As for the reliability of the information found on his site – a popular ‘first stop’ for most novice and professional researchers – Mr. Wales suggested that tax directors keep in mind that the content is targeted towards the general public and, as such, may contain some generalizations. “You, as a tax professional, may say ‘you know there is so much more that could be said here if you are talking to other tax professionals’, but we’re writing for the general public and have to put it in a way that makes sense to them. Wikipedia is no replacement for professional expertise.”
The keynote speech was followed by a Question and Answer session with Mary Nightingale. Asked how tax executives might make sense of the avalanche of information they now face, Mr. Wales suggested that an internal documentation and ‘wiki’ process would allow tax leaders to transform the flood of information into a valuable reference guide to help bring structure to the information. Mr. Wales also suggested that tax leaders may want to go on a ‘communication diet’ by reducing the quantity of information they manage each day. In part, this will require them to spend less time writing and responding to emails. But Mr. Wales also suggested that executives identify a single ‘indicative’ measure of an issue that can be easily tracked, rather than trying to make sense of a basket of data points and metrics.
With trust in information rapidly rising up the agenda for tax professionals, Ms. Nightingale asked how Wikipedia users can gain more trust in the information they find on the site, particularly given the organization’s reliance on the general public to write, verify and edit content on Wikipedia. Mr. Wales pointed to the organization’s policies regarding reliable sourcing and noted that the organization goes through great lengths to ensure that proper disclaimers are provided in situations where data has not been properly sourced or verified. “My advice is old fashioned: seek the best quality sources and then cross reference against other available data,” noted Mr. Wales. “Of course, there are also certain contexts in which we don’t need absolutely perfect information,” he added. In these cases, reference sites such as Wikipedia can actually go a long ways towards reducing the amount of information that must be reviewed and digested in order to develop a simple view into a particular topic.