Wikis While You Work

By Dave Greenfield  |  Posted 2007-11-21

Wikis While You Work

Once an exotic collaboration tool used by developers, wikis have gone mainstream. But can enterprises harness the free-flowing technology to make it work as a corporate collaboration tool?

Based on recent success stories, the answer is yes. But, as with all Web 2.0 technologies moving into Enterprise 2.0 territory, IT and business managers will have to strike a careful balance of control and freedom to make wiki deployments a success.

Were not just talking about Wikipedia—there are wikis in just about every conceivable area, and theyre increasingly making their way into the enterprise as a collaboration and productivity tool.

Indeed, just getting knowledge out of peoples heads is important for organizations, as employee turnover and other factors can translate into a significant amount of institutionalized knowledge leaving an organization. With wikis, organizations are better able to capture the latent information of knowledge workers.

Wikis flexibility and versatility make the technology a potential solution for an array of business requirements. From bare-bones content collaboration to Web-based project management, wikis can adapt to the team requirements of many organizations. (Find out how one company engineered a wiki by clicking here.)

Like most social software, wikis are often thought of as a means for extracting and sharing information among members of a team. But wiki technologys ability to blend information from multiple data sources—whether through RSS or Web APIs—also positions it as a dashboard into information sources.

Customer engagement is one area in which wikis have thrived. Organizations are constantly looking for ways to engage their customers more deeply in the product creation process, improving the chances of delivering a winning product.

Discovery Communications, for example, was looking to enhance the viewer experience of its programming. Viewers had been providing feedback on programming through forums, but Discovery wanted to help them contribute content to the shows as well.

Kevin Loftis, senior vice president of interactive technology at Discovery, and his team deployed a Wetpaint wiki. With it, users are able to participate in programming by commenting on shows, uploading videos and recommending new content.

The creation of documentation also lends itself well to the wiki model.

Citrix Systems found that too much time was being spent managing internal requests for changes to corporate intranets. The company was able to employ an eTouch Systems wiki that allowed users to write, update and manage their own content. Ultimately, these users developed their own pages, which let IT departments focus on other projects, according to Cyrus Christian, Citrixs Webmaster.

And at Boston Colleges Gerald School of Information Management, wikis have completely changed the way associate professor Gerald Kane teaches his classes. Kane deployed a Socialtext wiki for his students to post ideas and essays and even to suggest questions for exams. The result has been increased collaboration and interaction between Kane and his students without increasing Kanes workload.

As useful as a wiki can be, soliciting user participation is roughly akin to shepherding a pack of hippos. Users may appear to be indifferent and slow, but, get too close or be too insistent, and watch out.

Its easy for users to view wikis as yet another application that IT is pushing them to learn—yet another tool thats going to interfere with the 400 e-mails that need to be read, the 23 voice mails that need to be processed, the five meetings to be attended and the rest of the long list of presumed interruptions complicating that to-do list.

Successful wiki implementations typically follow some basic rules of engagement. Follow those rules, and your wiki will likely meet with success; ignore them at your peril.

Principally, a wiki deployment succeeds when a critical mass has been reached. The "network effect" sets in when user participation becomes organic—where enough individuals are involved with the wiki (or any social medium, for that matter) that other users want to contribute and be involved with the project.

Think of what happened with instant messaging and e-mail as two classic examples—wikis are no different. A deployment must get to that network effect to succeed, or it will sputter along with little success.

That success can be met in both targeted and open deployments. In targeted deployments, a wiki is focused on a particular goal or objective, with specific constraints.

"Define the scope of your installation and how users might want to use the products before allowing live content to be published," advised Christian.

With open deployments, IT provides generic wiki services and allows users to determine how theyll use the technology. IBM, for example, uses the open approach with more than 15,000 wikis used by more than 214,000 people.

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Wikis While You Work

But just building a wiki wont necessarily attract participation. A core group of active users needs to be pulled together to form the community supporting the wiki. Encouraging contributions becomes a matter of providing incentives for participation—using both carrots and sticks.

Carrots ideally should be aimed at evaluating both the volume and quality of contributions. Kane, for example, lets his students know that their grade will be based on the level of participation in the wiki. The more they participate, the higher their grade. To prevent students from posting with little thought given to content, he uses a rating system in which peers rate the quality of one anothers posts. The highest-rated posts garner bonus points for the students, culminating in their final grade.

Business may not have the luxury of grading employees on content, but they can provide incentives for wiki participation in other ways.

Within IBM, for example, the wiki service is promoted—a lot. A landing page draws attention to new blogs and wikis launched within the company.

Community participation is also used as a means of evaluating individual expertise and suitability for inclusion in new project teams. And as for sticks, enterprises can consider using community participation as part of their annual evaluation of employee performance.

In addition, IT departments can charge a higher rate for deploying alternative technologies, further increasing the incentive for departments to deploy low- or no-cost wikis, suggested Maria Azua, vice president of innovation and technology in the CIOs office at IBM.

While wikis have traditionally been governed by the crowd, business leaders may find it necessary to provide some direction for content. This can be particularly true in smaller groups, where the network effect may not be sufficient for self-policing and self-correction. Direction, though, comes with the inherent risk of stifling collaboration and should be used sparingly and carefully.

Keep it simple

Ultimately, soliciting contributions will work only if users find the wiki environment easy to work in. To those ends, all IT professionals interviewed for this story highly recommend using a wiki that incorporates a WYSIWYG editor.

In addition, from an administration standpoint, directory integration is important so users dont need additional credentials for wiki access. If youre running a project-oriented wiki site, youll also want document management features, such as a version history capability, advised Citrixs Christian.

When looking for platforms that include these features, IT managers must decide between stand-alone wikis and suites. A stand-alone wiki may be easier to implement initially, but wiki capabilities that come as part of a suite may make more sense for enterprises looking to deploy a broad range of Enterprise 2.0 applications and capabilities—providing a familiarity and level of support often missing in stand-alone wikis. Jive Softwares Clearspace, BEA Systems AquaLogic and Microsofts SharePoint are two examples of enterprise suites that offer wiki capabilities, tightly coupled with blogging, tagging, bookmarking and other social networking features.

That said, going forward, many organizations would like to avoid vendor lock-in. Many would rather see RSS used to integrate applications.

Kane, for example, said he relies on RSS to embed reading lists from Google Reader and favorites sites from in his courses site. IBMs QEDWiki takes integration one step further by blending a mashup with a wiki. With QEDWiki, a single page presents user-contributed content as well as information pulled from a range of sources using QEDWikis Web services interface.

Organizations looking for a best-of-breed wiki will also need to choose between deploying the services in-house or relying on a wiki service.

In-house products may offer more control but are generally harder to configure and set up. Products in this space include TikiWiki, Wacko­Wiki and XWiki. All offer page history for tracking changes, WYSIWYG editing, data storage and a plug-in system for expanding the product sets capabilities.

Wiki services eliminate much of the day-to-day maintenance, but many services target consumers and run ads. Wiki services that let organizations perform branding and provide page history, WYSIWYG editing and ACLs (access control lists) for preventing unlawful access to information on the site include BrainKeeper, SamePage, Socialtext and Wetpaint.

Whatever the architecture, one thing is clear: The near-term challenge for most IT organizations wont be in finding a wiki solution but in expanding user awareness of these collaboration tools. Appointing a wiki or Enterprise 2.0 champion to educate the user community is one approach that some organizations have found helpful.

But watch the seeds that you sow: Once that awareness takes root, IT departments will have to be ready to deliver wikis with the auditing and security features the organization requires—in the time frame and with the simplicity users desire.

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