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8/25/2005
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Wikis Make Collaboration Easier

Because they're simple enough for nontechnical employees to use, wikis are set to give content-management software a run for its money.

Anyone who's worked on even one team project in a business 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 asks the Web folks to update the company intranet.

Enter the wiki, collaboration software that solves all these problems yet, unlike many conventional content-management systems, remains simple enough for nontechnical 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 business 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.

Wiki.org defines wiki as "the simplest online database that could possibly work." 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 is Wikipedia.org, an online encyclopedia that's 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.

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 business environment, wikis are best implemented behind a firewall for a wholly internal user base.

Wikis don't always work for the commercial public sector, either. 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 titled "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's not their forte; instead, wikis excel at collaboration. They're intended to maintain a series of unique documents as their content evolves and to provide an organic means of organizing that information.

Thanks to the Web, and networks in general, the cost of publishing and sharing information has diminished substantially, which makes wikis the killer app for companies. Before wikis, an expensive enterprise application would have been necessary to achieve the same level of information management. Now, because most wikis are based on open-source code, they're free for companies that opt for an open-source distribution, or relatively cheap for companies willing to pay for implementation and support.

Wikis are designed to facilitate the exchange of information within and between teams. Their power comes from the fact that content can be updated without any real lag, administrative effort, or need for distribution; users simply visit and update a common Web site.

Wikis can centralize all types of business data, such as spreadsheets, Word documents, PowerPoint slides--anything that can be displayed in a browser. They can also embed various standard communications media such as E-mail and instant messaging. Heavy-duty PHP-based wikis can directly interface with company databases to bring in audio and picture files. The functionality of a wiki is limited only by the programming skills of the person who implements and maintains it.

Almost equally important, wikis have built-in version control. No change can be made without creating a record of who made those changes, and reversion to an earlier version is a matter of a few clicks.

It's important to note that placing a document in a wiki doesn't necessarily make it editable by anyone and everyone with access to the wiki. For example, the marketing department can make a PowerPoint slide available to the sales team or the company at large without letting them change or overwrite it. This ability to make documents editable or not at the owner's discretion makes wikis a uniquely flexible means of information management.

There's a plethora of project-management and collaboration software available, so why use a wiki instead?

Wikis are cheap, extensible, and easy to implement, and they don't require a massive software rollout. They also interface well with existing network infrastructures. Wiki software maker Socialtext Inc., for instance, has concentrated on making its platform work with existing global identification and registration systems behind company firewalls.

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