Wikis Are Alive and Kicking in the Enterprise

By Stan Gibson  |  Posted 2006-11-20

Wikis Are Alive and Kicking in the Enterprise

Look in the wiki!

If you havent heard that cry already, chances are you will soon, as the use of wikis in enterprise environments spreads like wildfire.

Proliferating virally, wiki usage has grown exponentially in recent months, along with other consumer-centric technologies—including blogs, podcasts and RSS—that have made their way into the workplace thanks in part to the influx of the tech-savvy entry-level employees of so-called Generation Y.

A wiki, which means "quick" in Hawaiian, is a Web site that enables users to easily edit and update shared content. Computer programmer Ward Cunningham originated the wiki concept and gave it its name more than a decade ago.

After slow growth initially, wiki use has exploded in the past couple of years. Wiki technology, which has been popularized by the widely used Web encyclopedia Wikipedia, took a big leap in mind share when Google purchased wiki software maker JotSpot for an undisclosed amount on Oct. 31.

Wiki usage in enterprises could further proliferate when Microsoft ships a wiki feature in Office 2007 and SharePoint 2007 next year and IBM includes a wiki technology in a social computing product code-named Ventura, due in the first half of 2007.

At Motorola, a high percentage of the Schaumburg, Ill., electronics companys 68,000 employees are regular wiki users—and many of them dont even know it.

Click here for an interview with Ward Cunningham, creator of the wiki.

Wikis were introduced to Motorola intentionally enough, coming into the company 18 months ago along with blogging and FAQ features in Open Text collaboration software. As such, wikis are one of several important pieces of Motorolas collaboration infrastructure, which includes instant messages (12 million per day) and blogs (2,600 corporatewide).

After six months, Motorolas wiki usage grew to a total of 500; after a year, there were 1,000 wikis. The number currently stands at 3,200. Altogether, Motorolas collaboration infrastructure contains 17TB of searchable data.

"Im not sure how many more were going to have—3,200 wikis is a lot. Well probably top out around 4,000," said Motorola Corporate Vice President of IT Toby Redshaw, who, with IT Director Baldev Singh, has paved the way for the wiki invasion.

As at many enterprises that have seen wiki proliferation, Redshaw and Singh performed no cost/benefit analysis ahead of time and have not tracked return on investment. Thats because the investment in wiki technology is so low as to be negligible and the payback is intuitively understood, yet difficult to quantify.

"We dont have a wiki police group," Redshaw said. "We just think its the way the business runs. All a business is, is human beings talking to each other, trying to get stuff done."

"People start using the capabilities as they become available," said Singh. "They are not advertised, but widely used."

Despite the laissez-faire approach, all is not anarchy at Motorola. Managing the platforms usage are 250 "knowledge champions" who take responsibility for different subject areas in the Open Text collaboration infrastructure. The group meets biweekly to set governing processes.

"The knowledge champions are all part-time volunteers," said Redshaw. "They are deciders. Its just like Wikipedia. It polices itself."

In addition to the corporate Open Text platform, engineers at Motorola are using TWiki enterprise collaboration software, which is better suited to engineering applications, according to Redshaw, thanks to some 200 plug-ins for creating mini-applications.

The hands-off approach would not be possible without airtight security to limit wiki usage to Motorola employees. "We have the fiercest, most hard-core chief security officer on the planet. The architecture is designed to support limited access to limited data," said Redshaw.

Next Page: Go look in the wikis.

Go Look in the


Why has Motorola taken to the new platforms? "One reason is generational. Another is our affinity for technology. People take to it because were an engineering-based firm," said Redshaw.

Singh added: "Part of the culture is to look up documents. People say, Go look in the wikis."

Motorola is not alone. Networking software maker Novell has also taken to wikis in a big way, starting a couple of years ago when an engineer installed a wiki server under the desk of Lee Romero, manager for knowledge and collaboration services at the Waltham, Mass., company.

Romero subsequently came up with an enterprise wiki strategy, setting up a corporate wiki for all employees.

"It promotes openness for both reading and authoring; its a collaborative environment. Its much more efficient than when the work product is a document, said Romero. "It really promotes a culture and approach that is a lot more open. And the tool is more efficient in the way that people work together."

Now Novell has three kinds of wikis: the enterprise wiki, based on Media-Wiki, which has open access for reading and editing content; a TWiki-based wiki for Novells engineering team that includes access control; and "renegade" wikis, most of which run on TWiki, and about which Romero knows little, but which the company tolerates.

"Its hard to monitor and manage them when we dont know where they are or whos using them," said Romero.

Romero estimated that about 20 percent of Novell employees—approximately 1,200 people—read enterprise wiki content every month. Of those, perhaps 250 employees edit content monthly. Novell is dedicating four servers to host wikis, at a total cost of about $30,000. Romero estimated that the IT support required is about one-quarter of one persons time per year.

At Novell, the engineers wiki is not used for collaboration on source code, for which Novell uses specific tools. "Its more at the level of disseminating ideas," said Romero, adding that discussion of future products is restricted to specific groups.

Meanwhile, software maker Chordiant, of Cupertino, Calif., has opened up its developers wiki to customers, the better to create software that suits their requirements. A little more than a year ago, the company selected wiki software from JotSpot and embarked on an experiment that quickly became a company strategy.

"Were reinventing software development to be a continuous conversation between Chordiant and our customers," said Greg Biggers, director of product strategy for Chordiant and product manager for the customer-and-developer wiki project called Chordiant Mesh.

Chordiant sells what it calls "customer experience management software" to banks, insurance companies and telecommunications companies.

"This presents a more transparent process to customers than they have ever seen. The new level of transparency may be shocking at first," said Biggers.

Health bloggers to fill dedicated wiki. Click here to read more.

"Before, a product manager would talk to customers and bring ideas back, then come up with requirements. That took 18 to 24 months. Later, a product pops out. Then the sales manager presents it to customers. At best, its 75 percent of what they wanted, but even then, its no longer right by the time it ships," said Biggers.

Chordiant has paid JotSpot $50,000 for the initial software license and pays an additional $10,000 for hosting per year. JotSpot manages the servers remotely. Chordiant Mesh currently has 800 users. As at Novell, only design ideas are exchanged in the wiki, not the software code itself.

"It wasnt easy to achieve. We love the democratization of wikis, but we need some control over the communities," said Biggers, explaining that to operate effectively, Chordiant Mesh needed different levels of permissions, including per page and read-only.

But, Biggers said, the wiki project has generated new business. "The entire initiative is looked at quite favorably," he said. "Strategically, its a success. We have reduced our overall IT spending on the infrastructure for software development."

Next Page: Not everyone gets wikis.

Not Everyone Gets Wikis

Biggers said Chordiant showed Chordiant Mesh to a U.K. bank that responded by signing up the company to develop three applications for its lending business. "Its easy to get addicted to this ad hoc way of collaborating using wiki technology," said Biggers.

Not all companies are densely populated with techies and Generation Y workers, however. The nature of wikis as a shared platform takes getting used to for some participants.

"When people start using a wiki—sometimes people get it and others do not—some people feel comfortable with the idea that their work is edited by others. Others feel reluctant to add or make changes. If a manager has written something, they might not want to change it," said Chris Wagner, associate dean and professor of IS at the City University of Hong Kong, in China.

Novells Romero concurred. "People are interested in the idea, but not everyone wants anyone to read their content or change their content," Romero said. "It involves a mind-set and culture change. But once people start using it, their mind-set changes. They come to realize we can all be trusted."

Are wikis actually a waste of time? Click here to read more.

Chordiants Biggers said the adjustment to a collaborative mind-set requires commitment. "You cant half-collaborate on something; youre either collaborating or youre not," he said.

With shared content, there is the possibility that some users could post irrelevant or offensive content. Romero said that has not happened at Novell. "We have never had a problem with people posting inappropriate things," he said.

Madeline Weiss, president of Weiss Associates., a consulting company in Bethesda, Md., and director of the advanced practices council for the Society for Information Management, an organization of senior IT executives, said social forces can shape wiki content for the better.

"Its a sense of authorship. You can see who made the change and when. If I change a wiki, my name is on it," she said. With a persons name and reputation on the line, people are unlikely to post material irresponsibly.

However, that caution could be inhibiting if contributors fear their additions to a wiki arent good enough, Weiss said.

A greater obstacle to wiki adoption is a corporate culture that doesnt encourage people to change other peoples work.

"Will the other person think I am critiquing or criticizing? That is the bigger thing to overcome," said Weiss. "Having your manager say I really like your addition to the wiki would be positive reinforcement. When managers do it themselves, they become role models. Little by little, you can change the culture."

Despite their versatility, wikis are not well-suited to some uses. Motorolas Redshaw said that presentations to a broad group of employees ought to be made by other means, such as e-mail, and that real-time interactive collaboration is best done by instant messaging or by telephone. And direct person-to-person interaction should never be abandoned.

"Theres not a substitute for face-to-face and live human communication, although some people may use it for that. Sometimes easier will trump better," said Redshaw.

For the future, Redshaw and Singh plan to build on the Open Text and TWiki platforms and tie them to Motorolas Microsoft Exchange e-mail backbone and into mobile devices. That will be in line with the larger goal of enabling Motorola employees to work smarter.

"Were now using information [in a way that] is informative and preventative. We want to get to proactive and dynamic," said Redshaw. "We want to get it to answer the question, What is it I dont know that I should know about this?"

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