Wikis That Work In The Real World

Companies are letting wikis loose among employees and customers, and reaping the benefits.

J. Nicholas Hoover, Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

December 12, 2008

6 Min Read

With business technology and compliance teams struggling to keep from drowning in the content employees create, it might be tempting to turn off some of the spigots. Here are four companies doing the opposite: letting wikis loose and reaping benefits.

WIKIS SPREAD AT ANGEL.COM, a 70-employee subsidiary of Micro Strategies that provides interactive voice response software, has more than 10,000 internal- and external-facing SocialText wiki pages. That's from about 100 employees, customers, and partners with access.

One customer-facing wiki acts as a knowledge base for Angel products, while others for employees include video tutorials, training quizzes, and space for collaboration efforts, from developing marketing ideas to planning company picnics.

New employees get an hour of wiki training and set up a personal space that's like a social networking profile.

There's no approval process for posting content, but managers receive an e-mail when pages are changed, and they can edit content. So far, no problems. "People just don't have the time to go in and screw around," says Sameer Padha, an Angel product manager and until recently the tech support leader for the wiki.

The deployment has its problems, though. For example, customers have the power to edit wikis but not the inclination. "They say 'here's an error,' and we have to say 'by the way, you can edit that yourself,'" Padha says. And the biggest problem: wiki sprawl. SocialText has a search function, but it's so easy to create a new wiki page, people do that rather than look for one that exists to build on.

Three years ago, the Publicis Group decided to rebuild its communications consulting team's global presence, and the group spiked from 450 employees to 1,200, adding specialties and new regional offices. With growth, the company needed better ways to share information. A company wiki for the consultants looked like the answer.

To introduce the wiki, Publicis had the wiki slowly take over roles from the company's intranet: distributing the newsletter, file sharing, access to the time-off system. The company directory's next. That led to what's now the wiki's main uses--project management, such as for developing client pitches, and knowledge management, such as hosting case studies.

The next phase will open pieces of the wiki to customers, and let people accept resumés. Another project for this coming year will create sections of the wiki for each field of expertise, such as editing or digital communications, where people can share best practices, trends in their field, and relevant case studies.

Yet Publicis is finding something similar to what Angel did: people are doing a lot of reading and file sharing but are reluctant to edit. There are only 75 to 100 changes daily on the wiki, and it takes information manager Martin Menu only 10 to 15 minutes a day to manage the content.

Menu expected top execs and young people to evangelize wiki use, but the leaders didn't have time and young employees often left the company before they could make an impact. It took a sustained push by the IT team to increase the wiki's use.

Seagate also tapped IT to spark wiki use. The first six months the storage tech manufacturer had its Atlassian Confluence wiki platform up, usage started slow. After designating advocates in its IT R&D group to spread the word, use has doubled in the last six months.

Seagate CIO Mark Brewer has become a true believer in the possibilities. He started blogging on the wiki system this spring, and he's evangelizing among other executives--for example, suggesting to one manager to file status reports on the wiki rather than sending a PDF file around. "My eyes have really been opened to the possibilities," Brewer says.

Seagate's wiki is predominately used by the IT group. It includes a data warehouse FAQ application, a green IT site of best practices, and an IT scorecard where people can enter the latest benchmarks instead of editing a PowerPoint presentation. Some of the content on Seagate's Clarity project management software also links from wikis. A small group collaborates on wiki policies, and another IT group manages the software, though nobody has it as a full-time job. "Do I have an overhead of editors? Absolutely not," Brewer says.

Content largely stays on topic because because there's no anonymous posting, Brewer says. Some parts of the wiki are built on templates to keep them from getting confusing.

Among the next steps for Seagate is setting up a "sort of Wikipedia for IT help" where, for example, BlackBerry users with problems could go for troubleshooting rather than calling IT. Engineering is beginning to use wikis in a limited way, and operations wants to do reporting and record metrics in wikis. That would require expanding beyond the 2,200 employees who have access to them today. Access is tied to the company's directory access protocol system, so there's no added passwords once someone's signed onto the company network.

Red Mountain Retail Group owns and operates more than 100 shopping centers in the U.S. Southwest, and its information structure was a mess. It used cluttered shared drives to store everything: contracts, regulatory and legal documents, plans--you name it. Financial information for each shopping center was stored in separate Excel spreadsheets, compounding the problem. So when Troy Saxton-Getty was hired as interim CIO, he knew job one was to get information in order.

He decided to make shared drives read-only and make MindTouch wikis the primary place to share information. The intranet is now a MindTouch site called Workspace. It's the default home page for employees, and the policy automatically changes it back if an employee switches it to something such as Google.

On the Workspace, each property has its own wiki page with a picture and detailed information on the property, important contacts, property events, comments from employees on the latest happenings at the property, and links to subfolders of documents for departments including legal and property management.

To make documents more searchable, employees tag and categorize any new ones they upload. Since wikis have version control, employees can look at older versions of the documents, for example, browsing through previous leases on a property.

Red Mountain takes wikis further than most, generating reports that automatically post to the wiki thanks to a series of mashups. Employees can do things like create a summary of total revenue by property or a list of all vacancies in the company by length of vacancy. MindTouch can pull in business information from Microsoft Dynamics ERP.

Among the most important lessons Saxton-Getty has learned is to think seriously about information architecture before setting up the wiki and use templates so employees can copy information structures that work for one property or function to another.

Photo illustration by Sek Leung

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This story was updated Dec. 15 to correct the spelling of Publicis Group's information manager Martin Menu's name and to clarify who participated in a company wiki.

About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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