Content management systems will always have their place in the publishing world, but they've never been the best tools for business collaboration. A simple open-source app called the wiki may soon rule the knowledge management roost.
Anyone who's worked on even one team project in an enterprise can tell you what a nightmare document management can be. E-mails follow divergent paths. Spreadsheets and Word documents get passed around, and nobody's quite sure who has the most recent version. The admin who's been taking meeting notes and storing them on her hard drive goes on vacation. Marketing strategies change, but nobody remembers to ask the Web folks to update the company intranet.
Enter the wiki: collaboration software that solves all these problems yet, unlike many traditional content management systems, remains simple enough for non-technical employees to use.
Although wikis have been around for a decade, they're just starting to take off in business. Like the Web did when it first caught hold in the corporate world, wikis will likely go through a period of wild growth, fierce competition, and inappropriate usage. Our field guide to wikis will show you the best uses for this valuable collaboration tool.
What In The World Is A Wiki?
Wiki.org defines wiki as "the simplest online database that could possibly work." Inspired by Apple's HyperCard programming environment, the first wiki software was created in 1995 by Ward Cunningham as a way to manage the Portland Pattern Repository's site content. Named after wiki-wiki, the Hawaiian word for quick, wikis are essentially Web pages that anyone or at least anyone with permission can create or edit.
The most well-known example of a wiki is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that is written and maintained by, well, anybody who feels like it. Sound like utter chaos? Not so. It's a well-researched, well-written, and highly regarded source of information. If one person makes incorrect or inappropriate changes to an entry, others can roll the page back to the way it was before, or keep the changes and edit them further. Thousands of people police the site (or at least those areas in which they have expertise), fact-checking and editing as necessary, so the quality of the content generally remains high.
The real problem with the "wikitorial" was that the Times sent a wiki to do a blog's job.
Because wikis were originally conceived as an open-source project in the extreme, there are those who argue that a true wiki should have no authorship restrictions. In rare cases like Wikipedia, this works, but usually it's not a viable option. In the corporate environment, wikis are best implemented behind a firewall for a wholly internal user base.
Swing And A Miss
In June, the Los Angeles Times created a wiki that it hoped would focus on the war in Iraq. The editors wrote an opinion piece entitled "War and Consequences" and invited anyone who cared to rewrite the editorial to take their best shot. Unfortunately, the denizens of the Internet saw fit to spam the "wikitorial" with porn and profanity, and after three days of maintenance hell, the newspaper took it down.
Is it fair or even accurate to blame the Times' failure on wikis? Absolutely not. Perhaps the Times expected too much; perhaps it misjudged the juvenile capacity of some Web users. But the real problem with the wikitorial was that the Times sent a wiki to do a blog's job.
Wikis are structurally capable of handling conversation, but it is not their forte; instead, wikis excel at collaboration. They are intended to maintain a series of unique documents as their content evolves and to provide an organic means of organizing that information.
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