How To Use Wikis For Business - InformationWeek

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How To Use Wikis For Business

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.

Why Wiki?

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 corporations. Prior to wikis, an expensive enterprise application would have been required for sophisticated information management. But because most wikis are based on open-source code, they're free for companies who opt for an open-source distribution, or relatively cheap for companies willing to pay for their implementation and support.

Wikis are designed to facilitate the exchange of information within and between teams. Content in a wiki can be updated without any real lag, without any real administrative effort, and without the need for distribution — users/contributors (with wikis, they're one and the same) simply visit and update a common Web site.

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

A traditional project management tool simply
cannot reproduce the environment of collaboration and involvement that wikis create.

It's important to note that placing a document in a wiki does not necessarily make it editable by 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.

What's more, wikis have built-in version control even for those who have edit privileges. No changes 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.

Consider implementing a wiki if:
  • You want to establish a company intranet quickly and cheaply without sacrificing functionality, security, or durability.
  • You want to publish a range of corporate documents in one universally accessible location and let employees manage those documents with a minimum of effort, lag, and risk of redundancy.
  • You want to manage and organize meeting notes, team agendas, and company calendars.
  • You need a project management tool that is cheap (if not free), extensible, and accessible through any Web browser.
  • You need a central location where shared documents can be viewed and revised by a large and/or dispersed team.
A wiki might not be right for your organization if:
  • You need to use complex file formats. Some wiki platforms can support only text or HTML files. Consider using a PHP/SQL-based wiki platform that can handle robust file types. Avoid wikis based on PERL.
  • You don't have a staff member who can take responsibility for its use. A wiki is only as good as its ontology (or the search engine it uses). You will need somebody who can establish conventions for naming pages and maintaining links.
  • The collaborative format isn't appropriate for your group or workplace. Peer review is not always the best solution for content management.
  • You're looking for an exchange of views. Wikis are not the best tool for airing opinions or carrying on conversations. If that's your primary goal, use a blog instead.

Wikis Vs. Traditional Content Management Software

There is 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, for instance, has concentrated on making its platform work with existing global ID and registration systems behind corporate firewalls.

Furthermore, wikis are Web-based and thus present little or no learning curve in the adoption cycle, and they allow the user to determine the relevancy of content rather than being dependent upon a central distribution center or a linear distribution chain. After the initial setup, users, not administrators, control a wiki, to the benefit of both.

A major benefit of many wikis is their ability to organize themselves organically. In other words, users can create their own site structure, or ontology, rather than have it imposed on them by the developers of content management software. That said, wikis need to be used by people with a shared cultural language so that the ontology and navigation make sense to everybody. Wikis are well-suited to the workplace because a common corporate language is already in place.

Finally, it is the inherently collaborative nature of wikis, as opposed to the workflow structure of content management software, that distinguishes wikis and gives them the upper hand. A traditional project management tool simply cannot reproduce the environment of collaboration and involvement that wikis create.

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