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9/5/2006
12:00 AM
Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek
Commentary
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How to Use Wikis in the Enterprise: A Primer

A recent New Yorker article by Stacy Schiff about Wikipedia is worth a read—it’s a great behind-the-scenes look at the growth of the collaborative encyclopedia. Wikipedia includes more than a million articles. What’s more, those articles often include references that a traditional encyclopedia would ignore, if it were confronted with them at all. (Schiff provides an example: “There is a Britannica entry for O.C.D., but no version of it has included Felix Unger’s name in the third sentence, a comprehensive survey of ‘OCD in literature and film,’ or a list of celebrity O.C.D. sufferers, which unites, surely for the first time in history, Florence Nightingale with Joey Ramone.”)

What do wikis mean for your business? Although the Wikipedia obviously serves a different purpose than wikis installed for an enterprise's constituency, there are lessons to be learned from it.

Companies interested in knowledge management should seriously consider deploying an enterprise-wide wiki. A wiki can serve as an easily accessible content storage area, essentially acting as an encyclopedia for your business. Although many companies currently post basic employee and business policy information online, that content is not collaborative, it doesn’t change with the times, and most important, it’s not created by the people who use it most. What’s more, because it’s typically developed by a small number of individuals, its breadth and depth are limited, usually to what those individuals deem (or are told is) important.

Wikis can change all that by allowing the users of the content to be its creators as well, and by letting them collaborate on strategies that can ensure best practices are known to everyone who needs them, no matter where they are or who they normally engage with. Suddenly, large problems have multiple solutions, depending on the situation; and smaller concerns are addressed and solvable, when in the past they may have been ignored.

But as Schiff’s article shows, there are problems with the collaborative Wikipedia model. One of the big issues addressed by is the question of accuracy—that is, whether Wikipedia is, or can ever be, as “correct” as, say, Encyclopedia Britannica. The answer for now seems to be no, but the question skirts Wikipedia’s true genius: its wide coverage area, in every sense. That is, Wikipedia is able to include common and uncommon entries, with a depth and quirkiness not found in traditional books. (Even if said “books” are published online, making printing limitations irrelevant, their size will always be constrained by their need to be written and edited by a set number of approved—and presumably remunerated—people.)

The encyclopedia is trying to work its accuracy problems out. For the rest of us in the enterprise world, the following should serve as a baseline for using wikis at work:

Some content is inviolable. Information about HR benefits, legal requirements and regulations, and certain corporate policies are what they are, and should not be changed by anyone except an authorized manager or executive. Content related to these articles can be posted near them and allow for questions, tips, best practices and the like without changing the original policies themselves.

Expect bad content along with the good. Wikipedia quickly discovered that allowing the world to collaborate inevitably results in some pretty questionable content. There’s no reason to think that won’t happen on an enterprise wiki, too. Chances are, inappropriate language and actions will be kept to a minimum (as they hopefully are in the rest of the organization), but count on people to post inaccurate comments, rumors or remarks, as well as suggestions and solutions that don’t work or don’t maintain the corporate code and culture.

That said, allowing everyone to post his or her best practices means allowing the existence of content you might prefer not to see. Incorrect data and inappropriate content can be deleted from the wiki (see "assigning editors", below), but content that calls into question certain policies and procedures, or suggests unorthodox but otherwise acceptable solutions, should be left standing. Delete them, and you risk alienating users and rendering the wiki less valuable, if not altogether useless.

Assign editors to weed out the bad stuff—and monitor the rest. These people should have the power to delete and reinstate content, as well as ban certain people from posting for some period of time (with appropriate notification and subsequent training/education on proper etiquette and procedure for posting to the wiki). They should not, however, automatically be culled from the management ranks; what you want are enthusiastic wiki participants, people who understand its value and want to protect it. These enthusiasts will likely be working overtime (literally and figuratively), so they should enjoy the job. At the same time, they should not necessarily have sway over posters outside the wiki (employees whose meddling managers can simply delete everything they post may soon get discouraged by the entire enterprise).

A good search engine will make the wiki work.
Enterprise wikis are useful only if their content can be searched—and unlike encyclopedias, they need to be offer immediate solutions. If employees are relying on the wiki for tech support and suggestions on how to handle customer problems or business process challenges, they may not all execute searches in the same way. A sophisticated seach engine is key.

Integrate contact information and tools. In the world of Wikipedia, contributors can be anonymous. In the enterprise, you want to know who your posters are and how to reach them. Every entry should contain information on the creator, including phone and e-mail address. Better still, integrate click-to-call and click-to-chat capabilities, so users can contact knowledge keepers immediately, thereby enhancing business processes that much more quickly.

Expect, and plan for, mediation. Wikipedia has found that some questions about content have resulted in fierce battles among proponents of one side or another, with constant editorial changes back and forth. Some are simply a matter of right vs. wrong, but in many cases, the question itself is one of opinion more than fact. The ideal is for the community to regulate itself, but in an enterprise setting, higher powers may have to be called in.

Keep privacy concerns front-of-mind. If the wiki is available to all employees (as it should be) and partners, customers and suppliers (as parts of it may be), the information on it must be protected according to various government privacy regulations. It is critical, for instance, that personal data not be available on the wiki, but frankly, personal information of any kind (Joe Manager is/isn’t a great guy!) could prove problematic down the line.

Security is critical. If your wiki is successful, it should serve as a repository for company information unavailable anywhere else—the stuff that until now has primarily resided in people’s heads. That also makes it a point of vulnerability. Anyone with access to the wiki’s information—say, a departing or former employee—can surely use it against you. So make sure authorization for access is strictly controlled, and that permissions are revocable at a minute’s notice.

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