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.

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? 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.

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.

Where The Wikis Are

So, what companies are actually using wikis? Wikis have found their greatest initial success in a few specific areas of the corporate landscape that require heavy doses of content management, such as project management and spec control.

According to a Gilbane survey of 73 companies, it's mostly small businesses (those with less than $25 million in revenues) that are experimenting with wiki technology. That's no surprise, given the software's affordability and ease of implementation. However, several large enterprises have successfully deployed wikis as well.

Nokia has been using Socialtext wiki software for a year and a half to facilitate information exchange within its Insight & Foresight group. Yahoo uses Twiki software to help its development team overcome the problems associated with working from a variety of separate locations. Michelin China also uses Twiki as a knowledge management tool. Jean-Noel Simonnet, from the company's IT department, writes, "Our purpose was to share ALL the information, procedures, setup documents, so that we were less dependent on a particular staff member knowledge, so that nobody in the team has any document left in a personal directory."

Kodak, Cingular, Disney, Motorola, and SAP are also among the notable companies with wiki success stories.

Content management is likely to hybridize with the wiki into a new, more robust application that combines the strengths of both tools.

What are these folks doing that the L.A. Times could or did not? Two things distinguish these successful implementations from the Times flop: They are behind company firewalls and for official use only. As would be expected, this significantly reduces the likelihood of misuse, and ensures that the wiki is a tool rather than a playground. In other words, in order to be of value to the corporate community, a wiki needs to comprise a set of internal documents, an intraweb that can be maintained by its users from within a browser.

Wiki Tools

Leading the charge of enterprise wiki solutions are Atlassian, JotSpot, and Socialtext.

JotSpot was started by the co-founders of Excite and is a cross between a wiki and a database. JotSpot was built from scratch and is not open-source, but is free to use by open-source projects. By offering additional features such as forms and integration with external data, JotSpot is able to overcome the issue of wikis being essentially limited to handling text documents.

Socialtext is based on the open-source Kwiki software and has managed to land some powerhouse clients like Nokia and Ziff-Davis. The company even ships a standalone appliance with the software preinstalled.

Atlassian Software's enterprise wiki is called Confluence. Atlassian's codebase is composed almost exclusively of open-source libraries, and like JotSpot and SocialText, the company contributes to the open-source community and open-source projects may freely use its code. Although its software packages are not strictly open source, Atlassian does provide licensees with the source code.

On the strictly open-source/non-commercial front, there are several major players:

  • Tikiwiki has an editorial engine for submitting, editing and approving article submissions as well as a workflow project management system.
  • Twiki can be expanded dramatically with server-side plug-in modules that allow for specific handling of functions like calendars, spreadsheets, RSS, barcodes, and so on.
  • Zwiki offers a plug-in WYSIWYG HTML editor called Epoz that supports all the major browsers.
  • Perspective is popular with some large companies and seems to be the wiki many big businesses get their feet wet with first.

Each of these wiki distributions has its own pros and cons, but each is a stable and functional package right out of the box. Which one you choose will depend upon your budget, the features that matter to you, and your IT department's ability to implement and maintain it.

Watch Out For Wikis

One of the fundamental challenges to all companies is to ensure that information flows through and between groups with as little decay as possible. A wiki is a highly effective means of handling this task. It turns document management into something that can be easily tuned to users' sensibilities rather than preconceived notions imposed by the developers of content management software.

Content management packages will likely be around for the foreseeable future, but they will be under increasing pressure from wikis. As is evidenced by the enterprise wikis currently on the market, content management is likely to hybridize with the wiki into a new, more robust application that combines the strengths of both tools. Watch for wikis or wiki hybrids to appear in your workplace before long.

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