Wikis While You Work

Using the technology in the enterprise requires a careful balance of freedom and control.

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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