When a Wiki Goes Corporate
Rather than the one-way communication offered by corporate blogs, enterprise wikis facilitate conversations between multiple people within -- and sometimes outside of -- an organization. Enterprise wikis can be used as an efficient way to organize collaboration. Be warned, though, that keeping it running will take some work, and you may not always get what you expect.
02/22/08 4:00 AM PT
Wikis are finally becoming a useful tool for collaboration and information sharing in the workplace. However, like all business tools exposed on the Internet or corporate intranet, IT managers have to view their deployments with a stern eye regarding who can use them and what corporate information may be at risk.
The concept of a wiki, named for the Hawaiian term "wiki-wiki," meaning quick, has been around since the mid-1990s. In its purest form, it's a cleverly designed software application that enhances collaboration. Current versions of the software function much like WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) publishing programs such as the classic Microsoft Publisher. Users need no coding skills to enter or edit graphic and text displays.
Unlike the corporate blog, which is one-way communication, a wiki is interactive and simple for non-technical employees to use. Another key reason for its rise to fame is the relative lack of expense associated with using wikis for corporate information management. Many wiki products are community driven as open source projects.
"A wiki puts collaborative tools in the hands of users without having to write code. IT can control it without the security risks of HTML (hypertext markup language). Wikis are becoming a major start-up in this space, with major players like IBM coming into it," Aaron Fulkerson, founder and CEO of MindTouch, told LinuxInsider.
MindTouch in January released a substantial upgrade to Deki Wiki, its vendor-backed wiki. Deki Wiki is a free scalable and programmable open source wiki and application platform. With the new release, Deki Wiki extends the ability for communities and businesses to deploy enterprise-class custom applications and mashups, he said.
The executive staff at photo-sharing Web site SmugMug.com view the introduction of a wiki to its Internet presence as hugely important. SmugMug always had an open API (application programming interface) into its service and always published its technical specs.
"But that was only one-way. Our wiki brings interactive content with message boards and forums," Andy Williams, general manager of SmugMug, told LinuxInsider.
His company relies substantially on wiki technology for much of its internal and external management. SmugMug uses wikis to support operations, customer services and customer support.
For instance, each department in the company has its own page, which Williams oversees and frequently uses to post comments. The company also uses white boards on its internal wikis for what Williams calls "the issues of the day." The company's external wikis have proven very beneficial to improving customer service as well.
"With 450,000 customers and many home-based workers, we use our wikis to solve customer issues," he said.
SmugMug found that its open use of external wikis allows the company to be very transparent with its customer base. Communities and customers add their own twists and tricks to the Web site. The company allows them to customize its Web site any way they want, Williams said.
However, companies that use external wikis as a marketing tool have a burden that does not exist with internal wikis. Content is still king.
"It has to be kept up to date and fresh. And you can't let it be controlled by forces that are not accurate," said Williams.
Companies that use wikis have to monitor what is posted on them. This requires some energy and effort, he advised.
"But this takes minutes rather than hours," he added.
Wikis for Marketing
It makes sense for enterprises to build wikis into their overall marketing plan, according to Aaron Strout, vice president for new media at Mzinga.com. His company provides on-demand solutions for leveraging the power of workplace and customer communities for growth and innovation. Mzinga provides a hosted Software as a Service platform that includes wiki features.
Mzinga attempted to practice what it preached about the value of wikis to create the content of a book it was writing on the benefits of social networking and community to develop businesses. It set up a Web site for the name of the book, "We Are Smarter Than Me." The results were not exactly what the company had hoped for.
Mzinga asked its customers to go to the wiki and contribute information and edit others' contributions. To get the project started, Mzinga put its own seed content on the wiki.
"The wikis project didn't fail. But it went in a way that we didn't expect," Strout told LinuxInsider.
People did not like writing the actual book content. However, contributors went wild writing about the project and offering comments on what others wrote, he explained. Ultimately, Mzinga hired a professional writer to pull all of the wiki's content into book form.
Good and Bad Uses
Some of the most efficient uses for enterprise wikis involve event registration and FAQ (frequently asked questions) pages, according to Strout. Internal wikis are ideal for tasks that call for collaboration and workflow management. Companies with a distributed workforce may find them useful.
"We found that external enterprise wikis need a much more structured format for success," said Strout.
Mzinga also found that wikis do not work as well for customer service and product innovations. Nonetheless, the company is seeing a good amount of wiki adoption for both internal and external collaboration, Strout added.
"Internally, wikis are an effective way of communicating. But externally, wikis are not as effective," he concluded.
Strout expects to see an explosion of new uses for wikis in enterprises between the second half of this year and the first half of 2009. Wikis, he said, will continue to emerge as enterprises find new ways to use them.
Companies should not face the decision about wikis as "should we or shouldn't we" -- instead, the only real decisions will be "should we start out small or big" and "should we do it ourself or use a hosted service," according to Strout.
"Companies that don't have at least the foundation for wikis in place are going to be left outside," he warned.