Wicked Wikis

Wicked Wikis

The wikipedia is growing exponentially as an online global encyclopaedia. MIS looks at how organisations are using its offspring, the wiki - Hawaiian for 'quick' - as an alternative to blogs and intranets.

When the Green Party of New Zealand found project collaboration software too hard to use, it turned to wikis to keep staffers in the loop. When the right-wing Sir Humphreys blog wanted an easily accessible reference for its postings on 'Labour Scandals' and other political information, it also created a wiki.

Wikis are still in their infancy in New Zealand, but increasingly organisations see their benefit as an internal communications tool that could replace a mass send-out of email.

Gartner says wiki tools will be common offerings by application vendors this year, with wikis becoming mainstream collaboration tolls in more than half of enterprises and as common as corporate intranets by 2009.

AMR Research says wikis and blogs are the likely "next big factor" in knowledge management.

Enterprises, it notes, will increasingly use them to improve customer service, capture and retain crucial business information, particularly those held by baby boomer employees who are expected to retire soon.

One of the most famous wikis is wikipedia, the open source global encyclopaedia. It stores over a million articles contributed by more than 350,000 users, with people referencing the site increasing by 150 per cent a year.

The smaller wikis (Hawaiian for "quick") are typically internal systems. But just like the wikipedia, they can be altered by whoever has access to it.

Invented in 1995 by American Ward Cunningham, wikis are defined as "the simplest online database that could possibly work."

"A wiki is a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit webpage content using any web browser. Wiki supports hyperlinks and has a simple text syntax for creating new pages and cross links between external pages on the fly."

"Wiki is unusual among group communication mechanisms in that it allows the organisation of contributions to be edited in addition to the content itself," continues the wikipedia definition.

"Like many simple concepts, 'open editing' has some profound and subtle effects on wiki usage. Allowing everyday users to create and edit any page in a website is exciting and it encourages democratic use of the web and promotes content composition by non-technical users," it adds.

Global users of wikis include the BBC, Nokia, Motorola, SAP and Kodak.

For SAP, Sydney-based spokesperson Daniel Young says company software developers use wikis to update work done by colleagues who may be working in different time zones.

"Wikis are the most effective means of enabling collaboration and preventing a duplication of work/effort."

Collaborative campaigners

In New Zealand, the Green Party's web- master Stuart Young says his organisation created a wiki nearly two years ago to project manage its web development.

The wiki included contact details of people involved in the project, features of the project, how tasks were to be broken down and received ideas from the party's IT and project staff.

Today, the Greens still use the wiki for project management, and also as a repository of the party's institutional knowledge and for members to comment on the party's IT policies.

Young doubts wikis are capable of usage beyond a notepad-type storage of ideas, saying a more sophisticated structure is needed for something like project collaboration. "They are not applicable to wider businesses. There is too much time spent getting it running and getting other people to use it. Other software is better depending on your applications and for external communications with the public, blogs are better."

Furthermore, as a relatively new technology, people had to learn how to use wikis. The party created How to get a Wiki Adopted and Followed guide containing best practices and ideas.

"There's not much of a business case. I would see it as an internal shared collaborative notebook," Young concludes.

However, Bernard Woolley of Sir Humphreys says while blogs are fine for recording the latest events linearly, they are poor at storing data long-term. Thus, the Sir Humphrey's team of bloggers created Top Spin as a research database of New Zealand politics and media.

"From our perspective, as a website providing independent political commentary, a wiki makes a great partner to blogging software," Woolley continues.

Safeguards were also put up. "Because we are dealing with a topic that can generate very heated discussions, the wiki was installed without the ability for people to self-register and anonymous people cannot make edits," he says. "Only the administrators can create accounts and details for account access and editing are emailed to users when their account is created."

This is important in the light of what happened at wikipedia. Last December, wikipedia was forced to implement a new policy blocking unregistered users from creating new articles.

This came after John Seigenthaler, a prominent American journalist, complained about an entry posted by a prankster that falsely linked him to the assassinations of President John F Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy. The "wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool," Seigenthaler wrote in USA Today.

Earlier, in June 2005, a Los Angeles Times wiki on the Iraqi war was spammed with porn and profanity until it was taken down three days later.

Documentation device

In New Zealand, wiki users include the Library Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa, the government's Tertiary e-learning wiki, and risk management firm the Kestrel Group.

Kestrel Group director Gavin Treadgold says his company uses a wiki to record all its documentation - internal company procedures, information about suppliers, planning documents, capability profiles and guidelines.

"The real benefit comes when staff are aware that all internal documentation can be found on the wiki, rather than having to find the appropriate word processing document or implement a search function to search documents. This leads to benefits down the track as new versions of documents do not need to be sent out to all staff - as most intranet applications, the changes in a wiki are available immediately."

Treadgold adds wikis provide powerful tools for collaborative developments of documents through a web browser and provide a means of tracking who and what was edited. This also holds potential for using wikis to collaboratively develop complex documents including plans, reports, technical references and books.

Wikis, he continues, are starting to provide more complex functionality including classification, indexing and access controls. Basic mark-up for formatting text is easy to learn, and structure changes to pages in a wiki are easily made, allowing people to spend more time on focusing on the content they are producing.

For Treadgold, the suitability of a wiki to an organisation comes down to understanding how they work, and the type of information being stored on it. "Experience within Kestrel has been the wiki on the intranet is best at documenting the business covering processes, procedures and other relatively static textual information."

The perils of openness

As businesses find use for wikis, not surprisingly there are vendors such as Twiki and Socialtext, plus systems integrators offering wikis as a solution.

Anthony Townsend and Ben Crawford of Infinity Solutions' knowledge management team say wikis are cheap, easy to update, encourage stakeholder involvement and interface well with existing portals and directories.

However, challenges include a lack of accountability and possible inaccuracies from contributors, reluctance of people to change content, while others may consider it rude to have their work altered.

The open nature of wikis also allows vandalism, inaccuracy and opinion. Spamming is possible if the wiki is not behind a firewall. In addition, a wiki is only as good as its search tool.

Organisations planning to implement a wiki should consider who the wiki is open to, what access restrictions may be needed, whether it is important to record who has made what changes and whether the firm should experiment with less-expensive open source wiki tools.

Gartner states wiki-style collaboration is appropriate for business environments, especially where there is joint responsibility for a task, capability and incentive for contributions from a bigger set of stake- holders. Furthermore, the process involves ongoing discussions and change and the task can be modelled as a dynamic website.

US-based Peter Thoeny, who created Twiki software (<a href=""></a>) as a more flexible alternative to content management software, confirms much of the above. He says wikis can address challenges at businesses such as maintaining static intranets, controlling the flood of email and implementing business processes.

"Wikis are typically deployed in a grassroots manner. Someone in a team thinks wikis are cool and installs it for his group. Larger organisations tend to have many wikis. After some time (once the wikis get off the radar screen of the executives), the wikis get consolidated into one central wiki, managed by IT," says Thoeny.

"Initially, almost any wiki will do the job," says Thoeney, who spoke on the nuances of managing a wiki project during the LinuxWorld 2005.

"But after a few months of deployment, people will want to do more advanced stuff, such as structuring the content, scheduling project, building wiki applications and more. For this, you will need a structured wiki."

Wikis are most likely to be adopted by engineers because they remain somewhat technical (the WYSIWYG editing tool has only been recently launched) and because engineers understand and embrace taxonomy more easily than sales and administration, he says.

"Do not underestimate the time it takes to get a wiki accepted. There is typically a hockey stick curve for deployment," advises Thoeny.

"A wiki can be perceived as chaotic. However, nothing gets lost because of version control. Restricting access to view or edit content can be done as well. But for collaboration, it is better to avoid access control, and to rely on 'soft security' (accountability through version control and peer pressure)."

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