posted 7 Dec 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 4
A million monkeys?
By Jessica Twentyman
Anyone lucky enough to have visited Hawaii on their holidays will know that the most efficient way to travel between terminals at Honolulu Airport is by using the shuttle buses called Wiki-wiki – the Hawaiian word for ‘quick’.
But over the past couple of years, the term wiki has been used in another context, to describe an example of what many industry analysts call ‘social software’ – programmes that foster a connection to other people, enabling them to share ideas and knowledge.
The much better understood web log or ‘blog’ is also a form of social software. But while a blog enables individuals to post their thoughts and interests online in a diary format, wikis are more focused websites, compiled and constantly edited by a dedicated group of people.
That team can not only post material to the site but also edit the content it already contains. “Where blogs reflect individual ideas, wikis reflect the collective knowledge of a community,” says Mark Dixon Bünger, an analyst at IT market research company Forrester Research.
Like the blog, the wiki started life in the consumer arena. Take, for example, Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia which now consists of 831,678 articles, covering subjects as diverse as the architecture of open-source software systems, the history of the
Wikipedia is just one example of hundreds, possibly thousands, of wikis on the web. The difference with a corporate wiki is that it is used only by internal collaborators and is typically situated behind a company’s firewall or accessible via a username and password.
“Wikis address an important area of corporate IT in that they improve collaboration via a shared workspace,” explains Nikos Drakos, an analyst at the Gartner Group. This “shared workspace”, he explains, is essentially a hyperlinked blackboard that can be accessed and changed using the same, simple browser-based user interface.
Any user who looks at any page on a wiki website can easily change it, remove it and link other web pages from it or to it. “This ease of use and conceptual simplicity can encourage user contributions and lead to significantly more knowledge sharing and more intense collaboration, which ultimately, will foster creativity and innovation,” he says.
For hard-pressed teams in organisations working together on documents or projects, that is an alluring concept. “I don’t necessarily think that wikis are any better or worse than any other knowledge-management tool, but I do believe they have an important role to play in any form of electronic knowledge-management system,” says John Roots, co-ordinator of information services at Rockdale City Council in
Although the council has yet to decide how it will use wikis, he envisages them providing a valuable reference source for council employees, providing staff with guidelines on how to perform and improve specific tasks they perform as part of their day-to-day working lives. “These could range from the simplest office-based and online help functions, up to and including strategy and decision making,” he says.
“The effort will probably be headed up by subject matter experts, or SMEs, in and outside of the organisation, with our internal SMEs set up to be the moderator for their particular subjects within the system,” Roots predicts. “The advantage of using wikis over blogs is that they’re more regulated and I can be more assured of being able to manage the risks associated with using the information contained in the wiki – particularly our professional indemnity risks,” he says.
Another organisation, Manchester-based open-source software consortium Axiom Tech, is already using wikis so that developers within its community can collaborate on software development projects. According to Phil Nicholls, a member of Axiom and managing director of consultancy company PsyDev, the group also uses Microsoft’s Groove peer-to-peer software when small groups within Axiom are collaborating on a specific task or problem, “but the wiki is better for making information available to the wider Axiom community, and in particular, new members who only need to set up an account rather than download any client software as they have to with Groove,” he says.
Using the wiki, he adds, updating the Axiom community on projects, on the direction the consortium is taking and enabling members to contribute their own feedback and input their ideas, has been made “very much more flexible and far, far easier.”
To capitalise on these kinds of opportunities, a number of startups now provide wiki software that combines publishing tools and websites in a single package. While in many cases these tools have been bought by private individuals keen to publish special interest sites to which their peers can contribute, one of these start-ups, TWiki, already derives two-thirds of sales from the corporate sector and counts Walt Disney, SAP and Motorola among its customers. Other wiki tools companies include Socialtext, MediaWiki, JSPWiki, TikkiWikki and WikkiTikkiTavi.
One of the great advantages of the corporate wiki over other forms of corporate knowledge sharing is that they offer a minimal barrier to participation, says Andy Bolsover, from risk management company Bureau Veritas. “Wikis are very, democratic. One of the problems I’ve often found with sharing information within teams is that many people have a bit of a mental block about signing up and getting involved. It may take a bit of effort to push the ‘edit’ button on a wiki, but generally, that effort is not as great as the kind of effort demanded by other kinds of knowledge-management systems,” he says.
Gartner’s Drakos agrees: “Access control is possible with a wiki, but the starting point is the complete opposite of traditional content-management systems. Wikis treat administrative control as unwanted friction, rather than as a mechanism for ensuring quality, by making writing, structuring and styling capabilities available to all users,” he says.
On a wiki, ‘edit’ links appear on every page, which encourage users to make changes, he says, but the ability to easily track who made what changes and to refer back to previous versions balances out the lack of explicit control.
Another advantage of wikis is that they use simple markup for formatting and linking. New content can be added using browser forms (typically in plain text), which are formatted using a simple markup language, such as (HTML). Easily remembered names – usually the page title – are used to create clickable links between any two pages and the user works only with the intuitive logical structure of the website (that is, the same structure that is used for navigation) without any need to understand how content is stored.
Wikis also provide visible change histories for every piece of content. Previous versions are available as links on each page, along with timestamps and details of who made the change. “And ‘diff-ing’ tools can be used to display and colour-code the differences between any two versions. Users can set up e-mail notifications or really simple syndication (RSS) feeds to alert them to changes. This is essential in limiting the amount of damage that less-sophisticated, non co-operative or malicious contributors can inflict,” adds Drakos.
The ability to track changes was an important factor in the decision by Axiom Tech to use a wiki, says Phil Nicholls. “Prior to that, the consortium was simply using e-mails and these needed archiving, which was an onerous task. Following an e-mail discussion thread through hundreds of archived e-mails was too complicated and time-consuming for users. The wiki, by contrast, retains every document version in an organised format for us to refer to when we need to,” he says.
Finally, the wiki tools currently available offer built-in, dynamic website-building capabilities. Their main role is rendering text mark-up into HTML, maintaining links and keeping revision histories, but they often include other features such as full text search, automatic navigation, design templates and basic analytics, including most visited wiki site, the most changed articles, the most recently updated or the most frequently referenced. “These properties add up to a system that supports a style of collaboration aimed at filling an important gap. This gap is between flexible but unmanageable collaboration through e-mail, and rich but inflexible collaboration through traditional tools,” says Drakos of Gartner.
In fact, the main obstacle to corporate wikis, says Espen Anderson, associate professor of strategy at the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo, is not their technological implementation but simply making sure that the target community gets involved in posting and editing entries.
In this process, the role of an informed moderator is paramount, he says. “Because of the wiki’s simplicity and the fact that structure is provided by a process of categorisation and re-categorisation, the importance of having a moderator (or a group of moderators) who have opinions on content, as well as procedure, increases.” That will require, he says, a core group of “very active people” to make strides in innovative content and new structures.
“Properly used, wikis can free up collaboration and increase employee engagement. Improperly used, they are no worse or better than any other collaborative technology out there,” he concludes.
Where does a wiki fit best?
The attraction of wikis for end users, according to Gartner Group analyst Nikos Drakos, is that they provide access to powerful collaboration services that can normally only be used by a technical elite. Wiki-style collaboration, he says, works best in business environments where:
- There is joint responsibility for a task;
- There is capability and incentive for contributions from a bigger set of stakeholders;
- The process involves ongoing discussions;
- The task can be modeled as a dynamic website.
- Software documentation;
- Requirement gathering and documentation;
- Personal productivity;
- Team collaboration;
- The ongoing maintenance of support knowledge bases.
Managing a wiki is all about turning readers into editors, according to Espen Andersen, associate professor of strategy at the
As a result, he says, wikis are associated with strong network effects both in terms of numbers and quality of participants. “In my opinion, wikis should be managed to take advantage of these attributes rather than try and fight them,” he says. The prudent wiki manager should, he says:
- Understand the importance of momentum and make sure that energy and resources should be channeled to encourage wiki contributions;
- Carefully evaluate one’s own involvement. “There is a fine line between too much and too little involvement: too much can lead to posturing from the other participants, who contribute to get brownie points rather than value out of the wiki. Too little involvement will quickly send the message that the wiki is not important and hence not worth spending time on,” he says.
- Think carefully about incentive systems and try and make them normative (praise, criticism, peer respect, influence) rather than instrumental (pay, promotion, other forms of tangible reward). “The best situation arises if continued and strong contribution to the wiki both is visible to others and a reward in itself to the contributor,” he says.
- Encourage risk-taking. While public wikis have to struggle to establish a common culture, says Andersen, corporate wikis have to struggle to overcome the established culture – especially the one of awaiting management approval before changing content.
- Establish joint ownership of content. “In Wikipedia, this is expressed as removal of all copyright. In a company, this has to be established in a similar form,” he says.
Reference: ‘Using Wikis in a Corporate Context’, www.espen.com