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February 27, 2006

Wikis In The Workplace



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The Canadian Meteorological Centre, part of the federal agency Environment Canada, was introduced to the idea of wikis by a physicist who was contributing to Wikipedia, an open-source encyclopedia and the world's largest wiki. He managed to convince his boss of the value of wikis, and the first one, based on the open-source Tikiwiki platform, was installed by the IT group. At first, it was relegated to a test bed but quickly proved both stable and popular enough to graduate to legitimate status.

Within three months of the initial wiki deployment, eight wikis had sprung up, says Michel Van Eeckhout, scientific programmer analyst at the agency. Van Eeckhout now administers 10 wikis used by 28 employees but says there are other wikis within the organization that he doesn't administer. About 100 employees use wikis, he says, and the number grows every day.

Peer Pressure

Companies should think long and hard about what type of wiki to use, as switching from one to another isn't easy. The nomenclature is sometimes proprietary and will almost certainly change if you change wikis, meaning your users will have to learn a whole new system. "Once people use it, they become a part of the system," says Marc Laporte, who runs a consulting business called Avantech.net that builds, installs, and maintains open-source wikis based on the Tikiwiki platform.

With many technologies, employee compliance and learning curves are barriers to adoption. But wikis don't suffer the same adoption problems as other technologies, because they quickly prove themselves to be both intuitive and viral.

In his consulting business, Laporte says employee resistance to wikis isn't typical, but there can be initial concern over loss of control or ownership of information. The Canadian Meteorological Centre's Van Eeckhout says people initially were thrown by the idea of a wiki. But once they got used to it, the usefulness of the tool became evident.

Another barrier to adoption is the geek factor. Wikis are still early in their evolution as business tools and often have a nonprofessional look and feel. Although employees access wikis through familiar Web browsers, what they find can be confusing or intimidating. The easiest way to reduce the nerd factor is to buy a commercial wiki rather than implement an open-source one.

Because wikis are designed for collaboration, forcing their use is contrary to their nature. Instead, wikis are most successful when they're allowed to grow from a grassroots effort. Their value, Angel.com's Aparicio says, becomes clear through exposure to the tool and its benefits. It's in the interest of everyone who needs access to the knowledge held in a wiki to participate and maintain a presence.

Once people start using a wiki, they become part of the system it creates and, in turn, the wiki becomes part of the dynamics of the office. Those who don't participate are left out of the conversation and stand the risk of not being as informed as their peers.

Laporte suggests assigning a person or team to manage the wiki, especially at the beginning. Although wikis grow organically as users add to them, managers can help organize them into an easily understandable structure at the outset. They also can answer questions, which helps drive adoption.

Wikis amplify traditional business practices and introduce potentially revolutionary forms of collaboration within and among teams. They can be unruly, so there may be sections of a company wiki where strict editorial control is employed. But remember that the point of a wiki is to decentralize control of communication so that everything from best practices to arcane knowledge can be pulled together and floated to the surface of corporate awareness. When used intelligently and with trust, wikis can be a highly effective way to distribute information.

Illustration by John Ueland

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