People keep telling me how wonderful wikis are, how they let people work together in new and creative ways, and how they can harness the wisdom of groups. What a bunch of horse manure!
Wikis are just another in a long, long line of tools designed to help people produce useful work that end up not being all that useful to most people. Deal with it.
But, lets get to the meat of the matter. The Wikipedia hasnt been a real wiki where anyone can write and edit for quite a while now. Wikipedias management decided that to prevent article vandalism they had to “semi-protect” some stories from new, would-be writers.
Thus, when you read Wikipedia today, youll find some stories, like Dick Cheneys biography, marked with the message, “editing of this article or project page by new or unregistered users is currently disabled.”
Jimmy Wales, Wikipedias founder, however, has proposed on May 21 “that we eliminate the requirement that semi-protected articles have to announce themselves as such to the general public.”
And, the difference between Wikipedia and a conventionally edited publication is what exactly?
Heres the point: wikis are just another form of groupware. Thats all.
What makes wikis different anyway? I think most people would agree that its a program which enables people to “have connectivity with, not just everyone in your company, but with vendors and customers. By working with teams that are blind to organizational boundaries and technology differences, work proceeds in a more continuous way.”
Thats a 1991 quote from an interview I did with Eric Sall, then Lotus Notes director of product management, for a PC Week (todays eWEEK) groupware story.
Ward Cunningham, creator of the wiki and the Eclipse Foundations director of committer community development, thinks wikis are wonderful. In a recent eWEEK interview with Daryl Taft, he said, “Eclipse is a shining example of the accomplishments of this methodology.”
For Ward and company, Im sure it is great. In my experience, people just dont want to bother with changing their work or workflow habits. Unless the workers involved are highly motivated (like the people in the Eclipse Foundation), they simply arent going to use wikis.
Its not the softwares fault. Our labs people say, for example, that “CustomerVisions BizWiki provides users with a polished set of tools for creating and managing content collaboratively,” and I believe them. MediaWiki, the software behind Wikipedia, is widely praised, and Im sure it deserves it.
The real problem with wikis is the same one that groupware has: its a wonderful idea that most people never use.
For example, I really like Notes. No, I really do, and there was a time I was a decent Notes programmer. Notes enables a team scattered around the country to do otherwise impossible tasks quickly and efficiently. Then theres the great majority of the time, when Notes users move like a slug running uphill.
Collaborative work, no matter what the software is behind it, simply doesnt come easily to most people.
Another problem is the one that Wales and company are running into. Its that, at the end of the day, someone does have to manage and edit the information, the workflow, the stories, etc. At this point, wikis become just another workflow tool.
Sooner or later the people who do that managing, or who pay their salaries, ask, “Why am I going to so much trouble to track work, when I could be doing work.” And, thats that.
What finally ends up happening, in all the cases Ive personally seen, is that the collaboration tools end up gathering dust.
Its not that people wont work with each other or that they wont change their methods. They do and they have. For example, in my own field of technology journalism, e-mail and IM, are now how most of us talk and work together on stories and publications. Its also how open-source software is created.
The greatest example of collaborative work I know of is the Linux operating system. How do the developers work together? With that oldest and cheapest online community collaboration tool: the Linux kernel mailing list.
I think Linus and company may be on to something.
So it is that wikis and groupware programs like Notes continue to sound like great ideas to improve accuracy, workflow and all that other good stuff. But, darn it, they really, really dont work all that well.
You really want to get work done with a group of people scattered from hither to yon? I recommend a mailing list running off the open-source Mailman MLM (mailing list manager).
Ziff Davis Internets Linux and Open-Source Linux Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been working and writing about technology and business since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.