Wikis in the Enterprise

Thanks to the explosive popularity of Wikipedia, many consumers are familiar with the concept of a wiki, a collaborative web page which can be viewed and edited by anyone with access to the Internet. Corporate adoption, however, has been much slower. Only 37% of enterprises currently use wikis, according to a recent study by The Nemertes Research Group Inc. in Mokena, Ill.

But while large organizations are concerned about security, management and compliance in a wiki world, smaller businesses are intrigued by what these infinitely customizable online databases can offer. Proponents claim wikis can improve productivity, reduce email overload, cut down on meetings and promote better knowledge-sharing.

“Users need space to collaborate with other employees globally who are mobile and don’t have the means to do so in the current IT infrastructure,” says Jonathan Edwards, a research associate at Yankee Group, in Boston, Mass. “They’re resorting to [wikis] because they are easy to use.”

Catching the Wiki Wave

“A lot of wiki use is still bottom-up. Someone — often in IT — sets one up and then people start to use it,” explains Ben Gross, an analyst at San Francisco, Calif.-based Ferris Research.

For those interested in officially deploying a wiki at work, Edwards suggests starting with a small pilot group of people addressing a specific business problem. He cautions that it may take a while for wiki use to catch on. “It’s a very different way to work,” he says.

Technology is rarely the stumbling block. Wiki vendors, including Atlassian Software Systems, Socialtext, MindTouch and Media Wiki (the software that runs Wikipedia) offer onsite deployment within the firewall as well as hosted models.

The key to a wiki’s success is user participation. “All too often when corporations look at Web 2.0 technologies, they think they have to get them, but wikis too often are left to rot because people aren’t used to them,” Edwards observes. “The cultural change is 90 percent; the technology is only 10 percent.”

Gross agrees, saying the biggest barrier he has seen is user hesitation to create both structure and concept. “It’s a shift for the users and managers because of the degree of openness, and because of the idea that you have a web page and you make changes on it and it’s live.”

Making Wikis Work

When are wikis a logical solution? Edwards recommends talking to employees about problems they’re having with their current collaboration tools and discussing whether wikis might provide the answer. In order to encourage use, he also recommends putting work content on the wiki so that employees are forced to interact on the wiki rather than through e-mail.

Before creating a corporate wiki, Gross advises looking at examples of successful wikis. They tend to be used more by groups that work well together, he says. Including employees in the pilot process will help convince them that working on a wiki will be comfortable and productive.

Newer wikis offer more access control in order to limit who can edit what. They are also getting better at letting users input content with standard HTML. Content that is highly formatted, like a complex Word document or spreadsheet, is not a great fit for a wiki. But a corporate-wide policies and procedures document that needs frequent updating is almost tailor-made for wiki technology.

Because their free-form nature can be off-putting and occasionally impractical, wikis need to be “groomed and linked well” in order to make information easy to find, says Gross. He suggests designating an employee to be responsible for ensuring the wiki is easy to navigate “because that doesn’t always happen organically.”

“Historically, it’s been hard for people to edit web pages and keep them together,” says Gross. “That’s what wikis do well.” Adds Edwards, “Once people realize how easy wikis are to use, they say ‘Now I get it.'”