posted 6 Mar 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 6
Rise of the wiki
By Euan Semple
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is arguably one of the oldest broadcasters in the world, as well as one of the largest. It is responsible for seven national television stations in the UK, six elsewhere in the world and ten national radio stations in the UK – not to mention local radio stations as well. Its website is also among the most popular English-language websites in the world – just below Google, according to rankings produced by Alexa.
It has an annual income of just under £4bn ($7bn), three-quarters of which is raised from a flat-rate annual tax on television sets in the UK – a unique financing arrangement among broadcasters, but one which keeps it advertising free, at least in the UK, and the public more ‘engaged’ in the organisation than with its commercial rivals.
It is also a very relationship-based, conversational organisation. Who has worked with who and on what are important factors in the culture. This is why the credits on television programmes matter so much to people in the industry, so it was clear that relationships were going to be key in getting people to share more of what they knew in the organisation.
When I was appointed head of knowledge management (KM) for the BBC back in 2000 I am sure there was an expectation that I would spend lots of the corporation's money on large, complex KM systems, but I took the view that for most areas of work-related knowledge people did not want to read reams of documents – they wanted, quite simply, to find each other. In a large and complex organisation of approximately 26,000 staff, dispersed across the world and facing the usual organisational and cultural barriers, this is not a trivial challenge. We had formal directories and databases with key human resources (HR) and business information, but we always struggled to keep up with the speed of organisational change and they rarely, if ever, reflected the social and personal ties that hold the place together.
For this reason our focus from the beginning was on ‘social computing’ tools: forums, web logs, social-networking tools and, most recently, wikis. We first implemented our forums in 2003 and they have grown steadily to their current size of 13,000 regular users. These are mainly used for asking questions and getting answers on a whole range of subjects from the practical to the complex from the mundane to the exotic!
The next tool we implemented was our networking application, called Connect. It was originally developed for oil giant BP and is designed to help users find other people and groups with similar skills or interests to their own, and therefore to facilitate the informal networking in which so much of our daily work gets done.
Web logs (blogs) came next and the BBC now has 200 people writing in about 100 different blogs. Some are ‘team blogs’ where people share useful information with each other, whereas as some are used as an easy way to produce and publish a departmental newsletter. Others are personal blogs where staff can write about the interesting and significant things that occur in their working lives. We have a number of personal blogs written by senior management and the ease with which they are able to communicate to large numbers of staff in a direct and powerful way is very popular.
So it was with a considerable amount of activity already under our belt and with large numbers of people used to this new informal, online method of communication that we decided to implement wikis.
So what exactly is a wiki? First the word is not an acronym – wikiwiki means ‘quickly’ in Hawaiian. The Wikipedia definition is as follows:
A wiki … is a type of website that allows users to easily add and edit content and is especially suited for collaborative writing.
Wikipedia itself is one of the best examples of what a wiki is and how it works. It was established by Jimmy Wales in January 2001, as a complement to the expert-written Nupedia, an encyclopaedia written entirely by volunteers. Today, it has almost one million articles in English and hundreds of thousands of others in more than a hundred different languages. All of the content is written, edited, modified and deleted without any centralised editorial control and with users’ actions tracked and reflected in the system. It is such a huge leap of faith from the normal controlled process of editorial decision making that it would appear to be a recipe for disaster – and yet somehow it works. Nature magazine recently compared the factual accuracy of Wikipedia articles with those in the Encyclopedia Britannica and found them to be of a more-or-less equal standard.
But what problems can wikis in business be used to resolve? Well, there are a number that spring to mind:
Establishing a website is a surprisingly complex affair, with most people forced to employ the services of a designer and developer to build even a simple, static website. After that, it requires a considerable effort to maintain and keep it up to date. With a wiki, users are able to start publishing online content immediately and maintaining it is trivially easy – and therefore less expensive too.
Being able to establish a blank wiki page and ask users to populate it with their own knowledge and understanding of a subject is a really quick and easy way to gain access to their accumulated knowledge.
For example, the BBC's librarians wanted to establish what directories existed out in the business, what they were used for and who owned them. To try to do this through conventional means using IT would have been a challenge and may not have uncovered all of the informal and unofficial stuff that goes on at the margins. As soon as the wiki was set up, however, users started populating it with useful information very quickly. They established a style and format for the data collection and were able to see and potentially change each other's information as they wrote. The result has been the pulling together, possibly for the first time, of a huge amount of complex and valuable information freely offered by users and shared openly in an easy and speedy manner.
Collaborative document creation
Many of us have experienced frustration at having to write a document in a group. What normally happens is that one person will kick off the document in Microsoft Word and save it on a shared server somewhere. The trouble is that others, even if they can remember where the document is and find it again, tend to defer to this original copy and are reticent about changing it and it tends to end up mostly as the original writer intended.
With a wiki this changes. There is no clear ownership from the start, anyone can read and change at any time. Changes are tracked and easily visible and version control is in the hands of all users. It is usually possible with wiki software to be alerted to any changes made to the document by a number of methods and there is generally a much more live and collaborative feel to the writing than is possible using the traditional document metaphor.
As an example, we decided that we needed a policy for staff who have their own personal, external web logs. Having identified our bloggers using Connect, a colleague responsible for editorial policy at the BBC created a wiki page, wrote a ‘straw man’ policy and e-mailed the URL of the page to all the bloggers. They then piled in changing, editing, improving and discussing their changes until they eventually arrived at a position of consensus and the wiki page stopped changing. At this point the ‘document’ was exported as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file and taken to the formal organisation for ratification. The power of this is that those affected by the policy were able to get directly, and very efficiently, involved in its creation and as such are much more likely to support and adhere to its guidelines.
Wikis can be used to actually carry out work too. Project plans can be easily created and shared and, through comments threads on the wiki page itself, users can discuss, debate and agree changes and developments. Timelines are easy to create and share and the very open nature of wiki communication means that it is easy to keep teams up to date, informed and engaged in projects as they happen.
An example of the potential for this came about through an activity that was not directly work related. In our forums a member of staff expressed frustration that he couldn’t take part in BBC competitions and this prevented him from entering the Digital Britain photography competition. I responded to his plea of, “Why can’t we have our own competition?” by setting up a blank wiki page called “BBC Staff Photography Competition” and establishing a closed Flickr group for uploading and sharing the photos – Flickr being a popular website where people can share their photos.
That was all I did - no management, no direction, no deadlines. Within a couple of days an enthusiastic group had joined in creating the wiki and had produced rules, criteria, tagging guidelines, judges, timetables and even plans for a physical exhibition of the winning photos. The result was around 400 photos entered by 250 or so staff and an undertaking to make it an annual event. Okay, this wasn’t a work-related project, but imagine this principle applied to ‘real’ work!
Choosing the right tool matters, but there are an increasing range of wiki software packages out there to choose from. For us, visual style was important. If you are expecting non-technical staff to engage with these online tools it has to be as easy and appealing as possible. Second, we needed a tool that would enable users to be authenticated against Microsoft Active Directory – the security and user access-control tool built into Windows Server. That would enable decisions about who can create, read and edit which wikis could be devolved to the lowest possible level without compromising security. It was also important to us that the process was as ‘self-serve’ as possible.
As with our other tools we have not overtly marketed our wikis – contrary to popular KM practice. Instead, people have found them by word of mouth. But despite this, wikis have become the fastest growing of all of our social-computing tools with 2,000 people now using them regularly in about 200 different wikis.
It was important to me with all that we did that we relied heavily on word of mouth advocacy as it is the most likely way for people to feel that they can trust the environment – key for the adoption of social computing generally. Having said that, the staff in our training department, who learned to use the wikis to produce their own content, have developed a training module for other staff to give them a basic grounding in the technology.
What are the main challenges in getting wikis to be embraced by your organisation?
I guess the first is the general lack of familiarity with the web and these sorts of modern tools. Probably only one-third of your staff are already comfortable in this environment – if that – and most will find it unfamiliar and maybe even intimidating. For this reason a number of factors are absolutely key.
1. Keep it simple: Making the interface as attractive and simple as possible is important as is keeping the various tools you implement separate – at least in the early days. People struggle to work out what they are ‘meant’ to do and expecting them to take on too much, too soon, is a big mistake.
2. Encourage shared ownership: With all of our tools, we have encouraged users to take as much responsibility for the environment as possible. It is important that they feel in control and that their decisions as to how they use the space matter. We make no judgement about what staff use the wikis for. If they feel that it is worthwhile making the effort to use them, then who are we to say no? Even in terms of navigation within and between wikis the technology makes it easy to link and join spaces and if things get confusing or messy it is easy to move, delete or rename wikis.
What you tend to find is that some users are more comfortable generating content, while others are more comfortable ‘re-factoring’, as it has become known.
3. Encourage linking from other environments: Whenever a topic in our forums appears to be trying to move to doing something rather than discussing it our staff have become familiar with the process of moving the activity to a wiki. We also have static websites that link to our wikis for more fluid and current content. Confluence, the software we used to build our wiki system, from a vendor called Atlassian, shows you the pages that refer to particular wikis and also the number of visitors from those sites. Encouraging people to see this as a connected and rich environment is key to their understanding of it and their appreciation of the differences between this and more conventional forms of documented communication.
4. People will not get wikis right first time so it is important to be patient and take a long term view. Sometimes, although a wiki is the right technology in the long run, people just are not ready for it the first time they try. Equally, wikis that start off well sometimes run out of steam as the subject becomes less current or the people who had been driving it move on. It is very much an ecology rather than a managed space and your approach – and attitude – has to reflect that.
The way forward
All wiki tools are in their infancy, as are the groups using them. New developments arrive at a brisk pace and in fact the need to manage the speed of change is something to be aware of. WYSIWYG [what you see is what you get] editors have arrived recently making it possible to write and edit without having to understand wiki code.
Interaction with e-mail is also becoming more sophisticated, not only as a means of reading wikis but also as a way of writing to them. Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is a major part of the success of any of the new social-computing environments, enabling people to subscribe to multiple sources, brought together in one place as soon as they have been updated. Confluence makes subscription to RSS easy and also enables users to design their own outgoing RSS feeds.
The main point, though, is that all of these technological advances mean one thing – much greater ease-of-use and flexibility for staff who want to share what they know with others and to generate new knowledge together. Never before has there been such an exciting environment in which to share knowledge and collaborate, and the ‘texting generation’ coming into your organisation will increasingly accept nothing less. Getting hands-on with wikis isn’t hard or expensive – why not have a go and see what your staff do with them and what exciting things they can achieve. Wikis certainly worked at the BBC.
Euan Semple was the head of knowledge management at the BBC until February 2006. He is now an independent consultant specialising in social computing technologies and can be contacted at email@example.com or via his website, www.euansemple.com.
Inside Knowledge, June 2005, The Knowledge: “Euan Semple on knowledge sharing and collaboration at the BBC”: http://www.ikmagazine.com.
More information about Atlassian’s Confluence wiki software can be found here: